Saturday, July 13, 2024

After 19 years of service, Captain Sunil Chhetri hangs up his boots


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Chhetri retires from international football as the sport’s fourth highest goal-scorer

KOLKATA, June 6: The stands were almost full, but still there was an eerie sense of emptiness because the irrepressible Sunil Chhetri, after being intrinsically tied to Indian football for 19 years, was cutting the umbilical cord with no successor in sight.
A sea of blue, with most fans sporting Chhetri’s No. 11 jersey, packed the Salt Lake Stadium as the long-serving India captain played one last time in international football.
On the night, India were playing Kuwait in a World Cup Qualifier.
Seated in the front seat next to the driver, Chhetri was the first to step out of the team bus. Outside the gates, a wave of Blue Tigers fans, undeterred by a passing thunderstorm, turned up in large numbers, waving the Tricolour and cheering passionately.
All roads virtually led to the Salt Lake Stadium, as the bikers came whistling, shouting India, India and waving the national flag.
Alighting from the team bus, Chhetri headed straight to the popular ‘Lozenge Mashi of Maidan’, Jamuna Das, an East Bengal supporter who is a regular at every match at this iconic stadium selling Lozenges of various flavours.
Chhetri gave her a hug and indulged in a conversation before heading straight to the pitch and taking a round of the venue with folded hands.
A giant poster describing him as ‘Sonar Sunil. Tomay Hrid Majhare Rakhbo’ (Golden Sunil. Will keep you in my heart) greeted the striker just opposite of the dugout as fans started pouring in.
The spectators filled the stadium where several posters dotted the galleries that had words like ‘India Till I Die’, ‘Thanks Captain. Leader. Legend’.
Standing as the last man behind goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Chhetri was seen singing the national anthem loudly.
Before the start, All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey, state sports minister Arup Bhattacharya greeted him.
“Welcome Sunil Chhetri @chetrisunil11 to the beginning of a glorious new journey. You start a new phase of life today,” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote in her post on X.
“You have been a golden boy of Bengal, Captain of the Indian football team, a sports icon of Asia, a globally adored scorer, a giant achiever. I am sure that you will continue to play, add to our glory and achieve many more laurels for yourself and us.
“It is not a day of farewell for you. It is a day to renew your pledge to uphold the glory of your family, Bengal and India further and further. Wish and pray for your future successes.” In the match, the 39-year-old looked the most youthful and sprinted past his young teammates, hoping to add to his record tally of 94 goals in his 151th appearance.
The fans kept shouting ;Sunil, Sunil’, ‘Vande Mataram’ and his best chance in the first half came in the 11th minute, when Liston Colaco burst down the left wing, sending in a low cross.
Chhetri was poised to score, but Hasan Alanezi’s sliding clearance thwarted the attempt.
While his father-in-law and former coach Subrata Bhattacharya was conspicuous by his absence, wife Sonam, nine-month old son Dhurv, brother-in-law Saheb Bhattacharya were there to cheer for him from the stands.
The talismanic Sunil Chhetri’s last international match ended in an anticlimax as a profligate India were held to a goalless draw by visiting Kuwait in their 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifier here on Thursday.
In a country deprived of major footballing success, it was not a fitting farewell for a man who had created an alternative universe for the spectators of the beautiful game in this part of the world.
The result put India in an extremely difficult position to make it to the third round of the qualifiers.
After the draw, India have collected five points and play Asian champions Qatar in their final match on June 11. Kuwait, who have four points, will face Afghanistan on the same day.
The 39-year-old Chhetri ended his glorious 19-year international career as the fourth most prolific scorer in international football with 94 goals, behind Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (128), Iran legend Ali Daei (108) and Argentine wizard Lionel Messi (106). (PTI)

‘You are a legend of this game’: Luka Modric’s farewell message for Sunil

KOLKATA, June 6: Ahead of Chhetri’s farewell game, Real Madrid’s midfield maestro Luka Modric shared a message for the Indian football icon. Modric, who won the prestigious Ballon d’Or award in 2018, showered praise on Chhetri.
“Hi Sunil, I want to say congratulations and wish you all the best in your last game for the national team. You are a legend of this game. To your teammates, I hope you make his last game memorable. Good luck and win it for your captain,” Modric was heard saying in a video shared by Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac on X (formerly Twitter).
“Thank you Luka. We will do everything in our power to make our country and our captain proud,” Stimac, who is also from Croatia like Modric, wrote in the caption.
Fans expressed their admiration for both Sunil Chhetri and Luka Modric in comments.
Chhetri bid an emotional adieu to the international game in front of a jam-packed 68000-capacity Salt Lake Stadium with his parents Kharga and Sushila, wife Sonam Bhattacharya and a host of officials and former players in attendance.
He will, however, continue playing club football for “two more years”. He has a contract with the Indian Super League side Bengaluru FC till next year.
Chhetri had scored in his debut match against Pakistan on June 12, 2005 in Quetta in a 1-1 draw but not on Thursday, though the game ended in a draw this time also.
He also did not have much to show for in the whole match. (Agencies)


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