Last hurrah: Chhetri set to walk into sunset

India football great announces his retirement; WC qualifier against Kuwait on June 6 will be his last game.
India football legend and all-time record scorer Sunil Chhetri.
India football legend and all-time record scorer Sunil Chhetri.Photo | Express

CHENNAI : As soon as the tweet dropped, you feared the worst. By the time the man in the video (9m 51s) had stopped talking, India’s football fans were fighting back tears as they tried to accept a new reality. Sunil Chhetri, who had come to represent the only peak in a sport filled with troughs, was going to stop playing.

“It’s not that I was feeling tired, not that I was feeling this or that,” he reflected in the video. “When the instinct came that this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot and eventually I came to this decision.” 

The upcoming World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on June 6 would be his last game. After 19 years of wearing India Blue, it’s goodbye.

Some sportspersons, when they retire, you can sum up their greatness thanks to their sheer body of work. On the other side of the scale are athletes who represented something more than achievements. Chhetri is that rare breed of athlete who straddled both. Just by the sheer weight of numbers, he is an undoubted Indian football superstar (150 caps, 94 goals, multiple titles). But over time, he became something greater; to a nation starved of success in the world’s most popular sport, the forward became an elixir. A powerful antidote in an arena beset by controversy, questionable appointments and apathy.

The forward was reason enough for fans to switch on TV sets up and down the country. For Indian millennials who had caught IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia only during the twilight of their careers, Chhetri had the buy-in from even before he was an established member of the side. During the AFC Challenge Cup final in 2008, the forward scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan to help the nation qualify for the 2011 edition of the Asian Cup.

The last time before 2011 was in 1987. His career had a lift-off. Even before then till now, whenever the national team did something of note, Chhetri was usually the architect or at least part of the support group. He would either score the winning goal, towering over defenders taller than him or tuck home the penalty or lay it on a plate for one of his teammates.

Last year, when speaking to this daily, Chhetri lifted the lid on what made him stay relevant since coming onto the stage in 2005. “I have been blessed to play with players who have helped me a lot,” he had said. “I think my work is just the final part but a lot of hard work is done by a lot of others... the last 19 years I have been surrounded by players who have helped me... that’s the reason I have been relevant for so many years.” In a roundabout way, his insistence on the collective further embellishes his legacy.  

Against Kuwait, he will wear India’s Blue for one last time to hassle defenders. At the Salt Lake Stadium, Chhetri will use the vast green expanse to paint his canvas for one final time — he may score for a record-extending 95th time. But he will do what he has always done. Press the opposition, win headers against defenders over six feet and cajole a performance out of his team, who will look up to him for one final time.    
Once the referee blows the final whistle, the tears will roll down the cheeks. It will also be a celebration as the masses will collectively stand up and applaud one of the totemic figures this country has had in the sport.
A few days later, a question that has been frequently asked for the last five years will become reality. ‘Who after Chhetri?’ 

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