Sunil Chhetri ready to hang up his prized pair of boots, heap praises by Former players, coaches, administrators

Ambar Bhattacharya, Takmaa News, Kolkata, 17th May 2024 : Nineteen years, or in footballing terms a lifetime, is how long Sunil Chhetri graced the national colours. The India number 11, who has played 150 international matches and scored 93 times for the Blue Tigers, is now ready to hang up his prized pair of boots after his last hurrah against Kuwait in the FIFA World Cup Qualifier in Kolkata on June 6.

While the GOAT (greatest of all time) of Indian Football may be ready to call it a day on his international career, his decision to do so has come as a bit of a surprise to one and all.

All India Football Federation President Mr. Kalyan Chaubey said, “To be honest, the announcement certainly came as a surprise to us. Somewhere inside, we probably were hoping that Sunil Chhetri would extend his career a bit longer. But with respect to the man, who has carried the nation’s dream for nearly two decades now, only he knows his body, the pain and joy he has endured.

“One of the best strikers India has produced is at his peak with no weaknesses. Words cannot define his greatness on the field and even better human being to ever grace the game,” he said. “Congratulations to you Sunil, on what can only be described as an illustrious career. You brought a lot of happiness to us all. Fans and sports enthusiasts from every walk of life aren’t too far off in the long list of people who you have inspired.”

All India Football Federation Acting Secretary General Mr. M. Satyanarayan said, “It would be an understatement to say that Sunil Chhetri’s retirement will be a big loss for Indian Football. We have seen the dedication with which he has played for both club and country.

“Even at the age of 39, he is one of the fittest players on the pitch. Right now, the only thing that we can do is look back on his glorious career and celebrate it,” he said. “We certainly hope that he will do the job for the nation one last time on June 6, but whatever the result may be, he will certainly go down as one of the legends of Indian Football. I would like to sincerely thank him for his massive contribution to Indian Football.”

Former India head coach Sukhwinder Singh had handed Chhetri his first national cap in 2006 in Pakistan. For the retired coach, longevity is Chhetri’s best quality.

“Sunil Chhetri’s biggest quality is his longevity and consistency as a playing member of the national team. From the very beginning, he was extremely serious about his game and did everything to serve the nation for a long time. He is a skillful player and has the special ability to score goals,” said Sukhwinder.

“Over the years he has sharpened his decision-making instinct inside the penalty box to emerge India’s top scorer. This is a special talent which will be hard to replace.”

The eternal superstar of Indian Football, IM Vijayan, who is also an AIFF Executive Committee member and chairman of the AIFF Technical Committee, compared Chhetri’s leadership skills to that of former Indian Cricket Team world cup-winning captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

“I consider Chhetri a great player, a terrific motivator, and an ideal captain. He is like the MS Dhoni of cricket, who has excelled both as a player and a captain. The kind of discipline Chhetri maintained throughout his career has made him a role model,” said Vijayan. “I tell youngsters like Sahal Abdul Samad and Ashique Kuruniyan to follow Chhetri’s lifestyle if they wish to prolong their careers. It will take some time before we get another footballer like Sunil Chhetri in India.”

Former midfielder Shanmugam Venkatesh has been with Chhetri in the national team both as a player and as a coach. It was, in fact, under Venkatesh’s captaincy that Chhetri made his international debut against Pakistan in Quetta, in 2006.

“I had played against him in the domestic circuit before, so the coach (Sukhwinder Singh) had asked me about him. He had performed well in the domestic matches, so we decided to call him to the camp and see. But I never imagined that he would come this far in life. I now look back on those days with pride,” said Venkatesh.

“His biggest quality, I feel, was that he was very good at measuring himself up with other players in his position. Of course, the likes of Bhaichung and Vijayan inspired him a lot, but he was always comparing himself with the first-choice striker in any team, he was always trying to get up to that level. In that respect, his vision was always clear.”

Blue Tigers assistant coach Mahesh Gawali has also both played alongside Chhetri and then coached him. The former India centre-back commended Chhetri’s attitude on the pitch.

He said, “When he first came into the team, he was a very talented boy and was always waiting for his opportunity to play in the first XI, and once he got it, he never liked to be on the bench. His attitude was always very good on the pitch. He’s a great striker who gave us continuity after Bhaichung Bhutia. After Bhaichung, he was the one who was always reliable in that position. At first, he was a bit nervous, but then he learned to adapt quickly, and once he did, he picked up himself very quickly, and has scored so many goals for the nation.”

Padma Shri Oinam Bembem Devi, former captain of the Indian Women’s Team, expressed how Chhetri has always been an inspiration for the Blue Tigresses.

“When I heard the news today morning, I felt a bit sad as I thought he could play for a few more years. I haven’t seen a player like Sunil Chhetri. His dedication, discipline, and hard work are second to none. We’ve always tried to set him as an example for all the girls in the women’s camp,” she said. “I wish Sunil all the best and hope he remains in great health and will be fit as always. He can now enjoy with his son and family.”

AIFF Executive Committee member Climax Lawrence, a former India captain himself, said: “The service that Sunil Chhetri has rendered for so many years will be remembered forever. I’ve played with him in the national team and found him to be a player who was always determined and ready to give 100 percent. He has always been hungry for goals, and his focus, concentration, and execution inside the box are worth watching. As a fellow footballer, I will never forget his crucial hat-trick in the AFC Challenge Cup final on slushy ground in New Delhi. The footballers of the upcoming generations should follow his example.”

Jeje Lalpekhlua, Chhetri’s former strike partner for the Blue Tigers, said, “It’s difficult to think of Indian Football without Sunil Chhetri. Sunil Chhetri and Indian Football go hand in hand.

“I remember when I went to the first national camp, I got injured and after recovery when I went again, Chhetri bhai was my roommate. He helped me a lot those days. I will badly miss watching him play,” he said. “I would like to thank him for giving so much to Indian football, for everything little thing he taught us, and of course for all the assists he gave me.”

Indian Women’s Team captain Loitongbam Ashalata Devi said, “Playing international football for 19 years is no mean feat. He is an inspiration for one and all. The biggest positive about him is that whenever the country needed him, he delivered. I’ve always seen him score in the crucial moments of matches. Indian Football has reached this level because of his hard work and dedication.

I wish Sunil all the best for the next chapter of his life. I hope that he may follow the same passion to contribute to the development of Indian Football.”

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