'Sunil Chhetri irreplaceable, will be hard for India to fill his position': Former players

Former teammates hailed Sunil Chhetri and pondered over possible replacement options.

Update: 2024-05-20 09:01 GMT
Sunil Chhetri has an powerful impact in the growth of Indian Football fan culture. (FILE PHOTO: AIFF) 

Navi Mumbai: A rather precious question has been making the rounds in Indian football at the moment - 'Who will fill the big shoes of Sunil Chhetri in the Indian team?'

On May 16, the talismanic forward announced that India's FIFA World Cup qualifying game against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium on June 6 would be his final appearance in national colours.

The 39-year-old skipper possesses an impressive record, standing third amongst active players in terms of goals scored in international football.

With 94 goals in 150 matches, Chhetri trails the two doyens of world football - Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Also, he holds the distinction of being the most capped Indian player.

While his retirement was 'inevitable', the big question remains 'who next after Sunil?'

Former India centre-back Gouramangi Singh, who played with Chhetri and saw how the baby-faced boy turned into one of the tallest footballers in India over the years, said Chhetri is an 'inspiration to his own generation and the youngsters' because of his work rate and ability to maintain a high fitness level.

"We knew it was inevitable, but we did not know when it would be coming. I wish him all the best for the future," Gouramangi told The Bridge on the sidelines of the RFDL final.

"Sunil is one of the greatest of Indian football. His contributions to the game are immense. What he has done for Indian football is unimaginable. No Indian player would come close to the number of goals he scored. Throughout his career, he maintained a high fitness level. He is an inspiration his own generation and the youngsters," he remarked.

"Now, I want him to spend more time with his family and enjoy his time after retirement. He deserves it after having such a long career. About his next course of action, he should take a call. I think he will be there with Bengaluru FC for one more season, but I personally want him to take some rest," said the assistant coach to FC Goa.

Asked who could replace Chhetri in the Indian team, Gouramangi said Chhetri is 'irreplaceable'.

"It would be hard for India to find a like-for-like replacement for Sunil. He is a once-in-a-generation player and irreplaceable. From the current batch, Manvir (Singh), Vikram Pratap Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte have the potential. But for them to fill his shoe will be difficult. There will be high expectations," he said.

From Left to Right: Gouramangi Singh, Subrata Paul and Mehrajuddin Wadoo at the Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai.

'Being the next Chhetri is almost impossible'

Echoing Gourmangi, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, another contemporary of the Indian striker, said Chhetri is 'incomparable'.

"I spoke to him personally and congratulated him for his contribution to Indian football. He has had a fantastic career, and his skills and dedication inspired fans and aspiring footballers from across India. As a player, as a football fan and as a friend, I am very proud of him. The kind of contributions he has made to Indian football is unbelievable. I think you cannot compare him with anyone," asserted Wadoo, a former India defender.

Asked about the vacuum in the Indian team that Chhetri will leave behind, Wadoo said, "Being the next Chhetri is almost impossible for any player. Right now, I do not see anyone who could fill his position, but someone has to come and fill the gap. There has to be someone somewhere in some corner of this country who will come and take his position. It will take time and definitely, there is going to be someone who will play as number nine."

"What Sunil has done in the last 15 years for the national team happens once in a lifetime. But definitely we will look for players, and this season we have seen some of the Indian players in the ISL and I-League. They have scored goals, and now they have been called for the national team. I think in the coming time we will see someone playing in his position," the 40-year-old opined.

'Nothing is permanent in life'

Meanwhile, former India goalkeeper Subrata Paul, the long-term teammate who witnessed Chhetri's rise right from the ground zero, called for more time to be given to the next generation of players to fill Chhetri's position in the Indian team.

"It is really tough to take a decision about when I should stop. For a sportsperson, representing his country is his biggest achievement. I have shared a lot of time with Sunil and won many tournaments. I have learned a lot of things from him and vice versa. I wish him good luck and I hope his wishes for post retirement life become true," said Paul.

"Sunil is a legend. The kind of legacy he has left behind, the next generation should follow that and become better. Sunil Chhetri has not become a phenomenon in one day. He started in 2005. You have to give time to the next generation of strikers. Maybe after a certain time - it could be five years, four or three - we will find a new striker. There was someone before Sunil and before that too. Nothing is permanent in life. But his legacy is an inspiration to the next generation. He has raised the bar and set a target for the next generation," Paul observed.

The 37-year-old, in the meantime, hopes to work with Chhetri 'for the development of football in India'.

"We have played together, now I will look forward to work with him for the development of football in India so that Indian football reach at a good position," stated Paul. 

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