Teary-eyed Chhetri says goodbye to international football

His willingness to go the extra mile helped him soar higher and higher, feels former teammate & flatmate Pradeep; India held to a goalless draw by Kuwait in his final match
India's captain Sunil Chhetri acknowledges fans after a FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier football match between India and Kuwait, at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (Salt Lake Stadium), in Kolkata
India's captain Sunil Chhetri acknowledges fans after a FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier football match between India and Kuwait, at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (Salt Lake Stadium), in KolkataPTI

CHENNAI: Thursday was a significant occasion for Indian football as Sunil Chhetri bid farewell to international football. It was understandably a poignant moment as Chhetri was fighting hard to hold back tears while acknowledging thousands of passionate fans.

With the who's who of Indian football following his final international match at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, Chhetri, who had announced his retirement last month, had a quiet outing as India were held to a goalless draw by Kuwait in the FIFA World Cup/AFC qualifiers. Kuwait, who had the better chances (three shots on target) between the two sides, will be the happier of the two sides as this outcome keeps them afloat in the race.

Close to 59,000 fans had shown up to pay their respects to Chhetri, who served the national team for close to two decades. Chhetri was playing his 151st match. In terms of result, it might not have been an ideal ending but he was quick to acknowledge the fans after the match. As he walks into the sunset, he leaves an indelible legacy behind him. "The ones who have watched in videos, the ones who have taken autographs, the ones.. the old-time supporters, thank you everyone. These 19 years would not have been possible without each and everyone of you and I genuinely mean it," Chhetri later said after the commemoration ceremony.

With 94 goals, Chhetri walks away as the fourth-highest goalscorer in international football, only behind the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (considered the GOATs of football). Ali Daei of Iran is second in the list with 108 strikes.

Having made his debut for India in 2005, Chhetri captured the hearts of many fans before reaching the pinnacle. His work ethic, which is well-documented, is second to none.

NP Pradeep, Chhetri's former teammate and flatmate, highlights the 39-year-old's work ethic. "He was not getting the desired outcome and he used to get really frustrated. He used to take me to the gym at night, sometimes make me play alongside him. He was really hungry for success and always set a target for himself. In order to achieve the same, he used to work really hard," Pradeep, while recalling Chhetri's time at Mohun Bagan, said.

That drive and hunger to win was a constant. "Even with the national team, we used to have in-games during training sessions. Even then, he always wanted to win. The team who used to lose would be mocked at. So it used to get quite competitive among a few players including him," Pradeep, who has 42 caps for India, said.

In his decorated career, Chhetri had countless games that wowed the crowd. One match that stands out for Pradeep is the AFC Challenge Cup final in 2008, a game Chhetri made his own by scoring a hat-trick. "I was involved in the first goal as I had headed the ball before applying the finishing touch. The second goal was quite impressive as he controlled the ball with his chest before scoring from long range."

Having been part of the team during Chhetri's introduction to international football, Pradeep felt Bob Houghton took the forward's game to another level. "Houghton gave him direction, made things clear on how he wanted him to play, how to make runs and how to shoot. That gave him a strong platform, giving him the opportunity to have a strong career."

Pradeep also feels Bengaluru FC gave Chhetri the necessary impetus to take him to legendary status. "After going to Bengaluru, he again started doing really well. He was getting proper guidance there. I believe his second innings commenced after joining BFC. The club focussed on the fitness of the players and he radically improved his fitness," the Kerala man noted.

Having gotten a chance to know him up close, it's no surprise that Pradeep considers Chhetri to be a perfect role model for anyone who's looking to excel in football. "If anyone wants to learn how to play and learn how to conduct himself/herself off the field, they should look up to Sunil Chhetri. He has a lot of knowledge about the sport too."

Another thing that stands out is Chhetri's knowledge off the field. He's someone who knows the ins and outs of fitness, having immersed himself into it. He's also articulate while sharing his thoughts during pre/post-match interviews. Pradeep and the rest would get lessons from Chhetri in that regard. "He used to tell us how to give interviews. How to think prudently and converse," Pradeep said with a smile.

Chhetri's departure from the international arena will leave a void in Indian football.

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