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Sunil Chhetri walks into sunset on June 6 in Kolkata

New Delhi: “Indian football sucks” — many would have heard this sneer and jeer from football fans at home, fed on an overdose of European club leagues, the captivating African-style club stuff, and the FIFA World Cup. With the Euro football fiesta set to begin in mid-June in Germany, Indian football is just a footnote.

On Thursday, this footnote called Indian football became newsworthy. No, not because of any outstanding results registered but one man decided to hang up his spikes next month in Kolkata at the Salt Lake Stadium. You cannot take fish and football out of a Kolkatan or a Bengali, so the news of Sunil Chhetri, the Indian captain deciding to call it a day was, indeed, saddening.

Agreed, Indian football in this generation is not about the Dadas from Kolkata like PK Banerjee or Chuni Goswami, amazing legends. Indian football had to lean on the magical skills of, first, Baichung Bhutia and then his successor Sunil Chhetri to provide thrills and spills to Indian fans. To say that Indian football is dead and buried would be uncharitable. After all, this is a sport where India has never been a world-beater nor have they shown great improvement at the Asian level, including the Asian Games.

Ask any teenager or die-hard football fan at home what Chhetri means, and you will get overwhelming responses. In terms of sheer longevity and pushing the envelope, ISL included Chhetri has been a standout. To have played club football for Bengaluru and the Blue Tigers for 19 years is no mean feat. It is not his fault he was not born in Argentina, the land of Lionel Messi, or Portugal, a country which fantasises about CR7 – Cristiano Ronaldo.

In terms of legend status and playing any number of international matches at par with Messi and Ronaldo, Chhetri is right there. But if one says his efforts have been futile, that would be cruel. Chhetri has lived and loved the football turf, he has adorned the sport and is still adored. As a brand ambassador for Indian football, the man who turns 40 in August has scored 94 goals in 150 international matches. Even today, Chhetri is a player par excellence. He has been there for so long, his legacy will stay intact for years.

When Bhutia had walked into the sunset, a certain Sunil Chhetri arrived on the horizon. The surname Chhetri would suggest he is from the hills up North, in India. No, this boy-turned-man was born in an Army family in Secunderabad and has been to schools all over India. Maybe, that’s why, if people ask if Sunil Chhetri has just one hometown to mention, that would be an error. Chhetri made a memorable international debut against Pakistan in 2005, scoring a goal that he later described as his best moment. Reflecting on that day, he said: “There is one day that I never forget and remember it quite often is the first time I played for my country man, it was unbelievable.”

Throughout his career, Chhetri has been instrumental in India’s victories in the Nehru Cup (2007, 2009, 2012) and the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship (2011, 2015, 2021). He also contributed to India’s win in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, which qualified the team for the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 after a 27-year hiatus.

Chhetri began his club career with Mohun Bagan in 2002. He later played for Kansas City Wizards in the USA’s Major League Soccer in 2010 and the reserve team of Sporting CP in the Portuguese league in 2012. A seven-time AIFF Player of the Year, Chhetri has represented major Indian clubs, including East Bengal (2008-2009), Dempo (2009-2010), and Indian Super League teams Mumbai City FC (2015-2016) and Bengaluru FC. At Bengaluru FC, he enjoyed significant success, winning the I-League (2014, 2016), ISL (2019), and Super Cup (2018). He also led Bengaluru FC to the AFC Cup final in 2016.

As the brand ambassador for Indian football who was also part of the squad which played in the Asian Games in Hangzhou, Chhetri had his moments under the sun. That he has chosen Kolkata as his last stop to sign off, strip his blue jersey, bearing No. 11 and walk into the dressing room, finally, will be emotional. Indian football has been in turmoil for many reasons, where performance is also a criterion. At a time when carping critics will say Indian football is doomed and these qualifying matches for the 2026 FIFA World Cup are useless, the Salt Lake Stadium will be flooded with emotions, tears and more when Chhetri graces the turf one last time. The date is June 6, against strong Kuwait.

One has to rewind to the time Sunil Chhetri made an emotional plea to fans when they were abusive. Non-performance is never accepted by any fan, whatever the sport. From IPL 2024 to Indian hockey and even football, Indian fans are demanding. Maybe now, fans will realise, the cupboard is empty. For, there is no one to replace Chhetri. The talent pool is zero, and no boy or man can take over Chhetri’s football studs.

One has to rewind to June 2018 when Sunil Chhetri was set to play his 100th match against Kenya. At that time, he posted a video which went viral. “To all of you, who have lost hope or don’t have any hope in Indian football, we request you to come and watch us in the stadium,” he said. “I mean, it’s not fun to criticise and abuse on the Internet. Come to the stadium, do it in our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us. Who knows, one day we might change you guys, and you might start cheering for us,” he urged. These words resonated and today there are people who watch Indian football.

To say that Kolkata will be dying to see Sunil Chhetri for his one last dance will be stating the obvious. In fact, people will flock from all over India. Maybe, KP – Kolkata Police – will need to send extra forces to ensure there is no chaos as there is bound to be a demand/supply gap for tickets. This could well be mass hysteria. That’s Sunil Chhetri for you.

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