Sunil Chhetri, the game changer

Chhetri’s recent retirement announcement has left many in dismay. It’s an emotional moment for fans who speak about his contribution over the last 19 years to giving football a leg-up.
Indian football legend and the country's record goal scorer Sunil Chhetri.
Indian football legend and the country's record goal scorer Sunil Chhetri.File Photo | AFP

It was quite an eventful week in the world of sports. In the midst of the IPL frenzy, Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri announced his retirement after next month’s World Cup qualifier against Kuwait, which is happening on June 6.

Chhetri will be hanging up his boots after an illustrious 19-year career that saw many achievements, including scoring 94 international goals. Though the fans saw that coming, it was still difficult to digest for many.

Suhas Bhat, an avid football follower and die-hard Chhetri fan, is still reeling under the shock.

“We have been watching him play for almost two decades now. So as much as we knew he was going to retire at some point, it’s still not been easy,” says Bhat. He goes on to add, “I don’t think any of us can do justice and translate his contribution to Indian football into words. He’s a stalwart in the game and is one of the greatest athletes that our country has produced. Even at 39, he is so fit and trains as hard as anyone else. As an active footballer, he’s the third-highest goal scorer at the moment, only behind [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi. If India has progressed in recent times in the game, it’s mostly because of him.”

Chhetri’s final match will be played at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on June 6 and many have started preparations for that day.

Rakesh Haridas, who runs West Block Blues, a fan club of Bangalore FC for which Chhetri is the captain, says the match is an emotional one.

“The man got Indian football to a stature where India is recognised as a football nation. Kids have joined football seeing Chhetri play. There is a reason why he is a well-respected sportsperson,” says Haridas.

Post-announcement, Chhetri clarified that the decision was not due to any physical injury.

“The retirement decision was not because of the physical aspect. I am still fit, running, chasing, defending; the hard work is not difficult; the reason is to do with the mental aspect,” Chhetri said in a virtual interaction.

Shubhan Sahi, who has already started planning for his upcoming trip to Kolkata to watch Chhetri play for the last time in the Indian football team jersey, says the news might have been a shocker but Chhetri knows what he was doing.

“He’s thought it out long and hard. We need to appreciate his decision and thank him for his contribution to Indian football,” says Sahi.

There are many ‘Chhetri moments’ on the field that people remember. For Felsy Royer, who has witnessed the Chhetri mania live in the stadium, it was India’s match against Kyrgyzstan that is still etched in his memory.

"There was a game in Kanteerava Stadium where India played against Kyrgyzstan in 2017, and Chhetri ran from our box towards Kyrgyzstan’s goal with assistance from Jeje and scored a fantastic goal. There’s a YouTube video of that goal and the roar of the crowd, along with commentary, which tells you everything about the man. That’s one of the best moments I have witnessed in a stadium,” recalls Royer, adding that she became a fan of football because of Chhetri.

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