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Football

Who after Sunil Chhetri?

While Stimac will have to bring in a new player in Chhetri's position against Qatar on June 11, concerns remain over the effectiveness of the player.

Who after Sunil Chhetri?
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Sunil Chhetri during his farewell match against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on June 6. (File photo: Indian Football Team/X)

By

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 10 Jun 2024 10:19 AM GMT

The curtains fell on talismanic Indian footballer Sunil Chhetri's two-decade-long career after India's goalless draw against Kuwait on June 6.

Since May 16, when the 39-year-old Chhetri announced his decision to retire from international football, one question has held center-stage - who after Sunil Chhetri.

Does India have a player who could fill the big shoes of Chhetri and better his record?

It is an anomaly in Indian football. The question was the cause of irritation for India head coach Igor Stimac and amusement for the headline-seeking journalists who sought answers in the form of names.

The harsh truth is that despite promising talents in the squad, India did not have an outright answer to the question.

In his final press conference under the India emblem in Kolkata ahead of India's FIFA World Cup second-round qualifier against Kuwait, Chhetri himself tried to mitigate the issue.

He did not want to sound harsh before his final bow as a teammate. He painted a rosy picture by taking the names of Rahim Ali, Manvir Singh, Sivasakthi Narayanan and Parthib Gogoi.

They are promising faces and starred in India's premier football league, the ISL.

But can they deliver on the international stage?

Who will score the goals?

India head coach Stimac always knew how fragile the situation was.

He did not want to single out names and create an aura of pressure in the dressing room. Instead, Stimac said, "The standard of ISL does not match the quality of international football." He also said nobody from the reserve bench has shown intent to fill the vacuum so far.

"That is a dangerous sign," added Stimac. "But situation and conditions bring out the best of players," he would emphasise.

But being Chhetri, a once-in-a-generation player, is never easy.

He led the team for several years and carried the burden of the nation's hope every time he took the field, so much so that the Blue Tigers' identity became familiar with his. Now that the umbilical cord has been severed, India have found themselves on the edge.

The question which remains unanswered is who will score the goals for India.

After the stalemate against Kuwait, India are now winless in seven matches and have not scored a goal from open play in 645 minutes, suggesting the bluntness of India's emerging forwards.

It was just another occasion which demonstrated the hard truth about Indian football. No Indian frontline player seemed poised to take over the mantle from Chhetri, the captain, leader and legend.

When Chhetri started his career in 2005, things were not too promising in Indian football either.

Despite the inconsistency, he showed the intent to polish his skills and score while pairing up with the legend of Indian football, Bhaichung Bhutia, the then-flamboyant captain of the national team.

Though Chhetri never replicated the exuberant style of Bhutia, he over the years became an idol to the youngsters with his ability to find the net, scoring 94 goals in 151 matches, hellbent dedication and selfless acts.

The impact

Bibiano Fernandes, the coach of Bengaluru FC B team, was outright when asked about the impact of Chhetri, a Bengaluru FC striker, among his wards.

"He (Chhetri) is a role model for my players, they look up to him and meet him everyday at the training. But we knew that the he would announce retirement today or tomorrow. So, that is not a shock. But players are sad," Bibiano recently told The Bridge on the sidelines of RFDL in Mumbai.

"But this is also a chance for these young players to grab a chance to replace Chhetri. I do not want to name anyone, but the players should come up and possibly grab his position in the future in the BFC," he emphasised.

Clearly, nobody wants to take any name!

'I can play'

But to say that 'I can play at the position of Chhetri when he retires from Bengaluru FC and later for India' also needs sheer audacity, skills, hard work and the support of luck.

Monirul Molla, aged 19, is a promising striker for Bengaluru FC and has already shared the dressing room with Chhetri in his eight appearances in ISL.

Manirul from Bhangar, situated on the outskirts of Kolkata, is a talented player and scored several goals in the RFDL. In the ISL, he dazzled with 14 successful passes.

"I follow him and watch how he trains. We often interact in Bengali, and he always encourages me which boosts my confidence level and pushes me to work harder," Manirul would say.

Chhetri knew India's next generation of players were striving to fill his position. “Some of these boys [teammates] cannot wait for me to leave. They are licking their lips right now," he would say smirking.

While Stimac will have to bring in a new player in the position during India's away FIFA World Cup qualifier against Qatar on June 11, the real concern is how effective the player would be.

It will be interesting to watch how a Chehtri-less India fare against the reigning Asian champions.

It is not easy to sustain as long as Chhetri did, playing for 19 years, battling against his tougher opponents and on several occasions against the poor management of the Indian administration.

The task for the next generation, therefore, is an arduous one.

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