We had Chhetri, I just don’t think you understand

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After a storied 19 years, Sunil Chhetri bade adieu to international football after India’s 2026 World Cup Qualifier clash against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium earlier tonight. 

Sunil Chhetri’s story could have had a fairy-tale ending, but, as has been the case in recent years, Igor Stimac’s team failed to deliver. The familiar challenges for the Indian team resurfaced, extending their winless streak. Although the game will be remembered for Chhetri, the fans who packed Salt Lake Stadium will want to forget the dismal performance on the field. After ninety minutes, all that remained was a tearful Sunil Chhetri, walking around the pitch with folded hands, thanking the people for their support.

The 39-year-old’s international journey began in 2005 when he was called up to replace an injured Bhaichung Bhutia against Pakistan in Quetta. In another popular sport in India, a certain Sachin Tendulkar also made his debut against Pakistan on foreign soil. It seemed destined to happen. The wide-eyed 20-year-old shined on debut, scoring India’s only goal in a 1 – 1 draw. Since then, the prolific striker has scored in every milestone game, netting in his 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 125th, and 150th appearances for India. 

Chhetri
An image that sums up the Indian Football Team since Chhetri’s debut

Chhetri has scored 124 goals in 300 appearances throughout his club career, but the forward always reached an even higher tier of excellence when representing the national side. Scoring 94 goals in 151 appearances, Chhetri scored 37% of all of India’s goals since his debut. In fact, his contributions have been even more significant in the past five years, where he has delivered a whopping 49% of India’s tally.  

In 2021, Chhetri received global recognition for being the third highest active international goal scorer after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Phew, certainly not in bad company. While it is foolish to compare Chhetri’s ability to that of multiple Ballon d’Or winners, few have been able to make an impact in their national side as much as Chhetri has impacted India’s. 

When a great player hangs up his boots, there will always be a demarcation between the times preceding his arrival and the times after. Before Chhetri, India had only appeared in two AFC Asian Cups, the previous being in 1984. Chhetri, by scoring a hat-trick in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final against Tajikistan, led the Blue Tigers back to the continental competition in 2011, after a 27 year hiatus. The team repeated the feat under Chhetri’s captaincy in 2019 and 2023. 

Chhetri

Another indication of Chhetri’s influence on India’s men’s national team lies in FIFA’s international rankings. When Chhetri first wore the Indian shirt, the Blue Tigers had a pitiful ranking of 135. At the zenith of his leadership in 2018, India was within the top 100 in the World and top 15 in Asia. 

While Chhetri revolutionized Indian football with his performances in the domestic circuit and the national team, his overseas ventures never quite came to fruition. His dominance in India, and Bob Houghton’s (then head coach of the Blue Tigers) high estimation, earned him trials in England in 2009, resulting in a three-year contract with Queens Park Rangers (then of the EFL Championship). However, the deal fell through due to work permit complications.  

Putting the disappointment behind, Chhetri signed for the Kansas City Wizards of the MLS, appearing in a U.S. Open Cup game and in the victory over Manchester United in a summer friendly (a famous story in Indian football folklore), but the 6-month-long national team camp for the 2011 Asian Cup compelled him to return home and he never quite went back. 

Chhetri

In 2012, Sporting CP signed him for a two-year contract but after a few training sessions, Chhetri was sent to the reserve team which competed in the Portuguese second division. After a humbling season in Lisbon, a 29-year-old Chhetri decided to pack up his European dreams and build his legacy in India.

And build a legacy is exactly what he did. Joining a newly formed Bengaluru FC in 2013, Chhetri won every domestic title possible, from the I-League to the Super Cup, and the Indian Super League to the Durand Cup. The Chhetri led side nearly became the first Indian team to win an Asian Club competition, when they reached the final of the AFC Cup (then Asia’s equivalent of the UEFA Europa league) in 2016. With the advent of the well-funded and well-marketed Indian Super League in 2014, and BFC’s move to the competition in 2017, Chhetri’s skill and ability, sometimes in obscurity due to the status of domestic Indian football earlier, became clear for all to see.

For a country grappling hard to rise up the international ranks, all while trying to attract public interest in domestic football, India could not have been luckier to have Chhetri as a leader and ambassador. Even discounting all those goals, the presence he carried on the pitch and in front of the public boosted the hopes and dreams of every well-wisher of Indian football.

When only 2,569 fans attended India’s 5-0 victory over Chinese Taipei, the captain took to social media with a humble request: “Please come and support us, encourage us, watch us, abuse us, criticize us. Football in India needs you.” This plea created a social media storm, marking a significant turning point for Indian football. Six days later, Indian supporters packed the same stadium on a rainy Wednesday night, complete with tifo and all, to watch India trounce Kenya 3 – 0, and Chhetri score a brace in what was his 100th international appearance. This moment exemplifies what makes Sunil great.

Chhetri

Beyond his incredible knack for scoring goals, Chhetri was the perfect role model. His football career saw turbulent times, but he faced every obstacle with a smile on his face.

Standing at 5 feet 7 inches, he was almost always the shortest player on the pitch. However, that did not stop him from scoring dozens of headers in crowded penalty areas – a testament to his strategic positioning and athleticism. Towards the back-end of his career, he was often the oldest player on the pitch. Yet, he remained amongst the fittest on his teams.

He played a center-forward, a grueling and lonely role when playing against teams of higher quality, which India often went up against, but he always found a way to overcome the odds. He took pride in doing the menial jobs required of his position and was rewarded with improbable goals against the likes of South Korea (AFC Asia Cup, 2011), Kyrgyzstan (AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, 2017), and Oman (World Cup Qualifiers, 2019).

As Chhetri and the Blue Tigers steadily improved in the following years, so too did the attendance at Indian football matches. 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata, the 2023 SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, and even away games in Kuwait and Qatar drew partisan crowds. In 2018, even Chhetri would not have imagined 60,000 would throng to the Salt Lake to watch him make his final outing for their nation. But that is the legacy he carries in this massive nation.

In a heart warming farewell message to his son, Sunil Chhetri’s father K.B. Chhetri says, “I want to tell Sunil that as an Army man, honors and accolades are very important to us.” He is obviously a proud father as Chhetri’s endeavors on the football pitch have been recognized with the Arjuna Award, the Padma Shree, and the Khel Ratna (the only footballer to have received this honor).

Chhetri

With the national team, Chhetri has won the AFC Challenge Cup (2008), SAFF Championship (2011, 2015, 2021, 2023), Nehru Cup (2007, 2009, 2012), Intercontinental Cup (2018, 2023), and AIFF’s Tri-Nation Series (2017, 2023). He is also India’s most capped player ever (151), all-time leading goal scorer (94), and hat-trick scorer (4).

Despite all his achievements, Chhetri maintains an admirable humility when addressing the media, public, or fans. His long sporting career, with its triumphs, setbacks, and emotion, has never been tainted with tantrums, boastfulness, or fallouts. Even in the past few weeks, while speaking about his retirement, Chhetri made sure to recognize and thank everyone who has helped him reach where he is today, from his earliest youth coach to the present national team boss Igor Stimac.

While certain dreams – like making it in Europe, reaching an AFC Asian Cup knockout stage, advancing to the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying – fell agonizingly short of Chhetri’s grasp, the forward arrived at a time when Indian football was critically endangered and brought it back to prominence. Now, it is time for the next generation of Indian footballers, blessed with infrastructure and facilities far better than what Chhetri grew up playing in 25 years earlier, to carry the torch forward.

In his retirement announcement on May 15th, Chhetri said, “The kid inside me, he never wants to stop if given a chance to play for his country…but the sensible, matured person inside me knows that this is it.”

“I think it is time for our country to see the next number nine. Now, when I am not going to be there, I am pretty sure they are all going to step up, and they need time.”

India is crying out for a new hero to emerge. Lallianzuala Chhangte has the second-highest goals in the national team currently, with seven goals, a distant echo compared to Sunil’s astounding 94. Let that sink in.

While Sunil Chhetri will no longer grace the pitch as a Blue Tiger, he has not yet announced his retirement from club football. With his one-year contract with Bengaluru FC having expired on May 31st, it will be interesting to see where his future lies. 


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Sriram Chidambaram
Sriram Chidambaramhttp://iftwc.com
A sports tragic, whose obsession percolates into the obscure world of Indian Football. My affiliations lie with the Blue Tigers, BFC, Servette, and Chelsea (in that order).

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