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Indian football's 'North Star' departs

The story of Indian football will always have a chapter dedicated to the Captain, Leader, Legend: Sunil Chhetri.

Indian footballs North Star departs

Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 19 May 2024 1:16 PM GMT

"I took time because the kid inside me, he never wants to stop, if given the chance to play for his country. Never. The kid will keep fighting inside, but the sensible, the mature person knows that this is it. But it wasn’t easy.”

These words from Sunil Chhetri as he signed off from his national team career capture the essence of a journey that has spanned nearly two decades. As the Captain, Leader, Legend bids farewell to international football, India celebrates a career that not only redefined the nation's presence in the football map but also inspired countless young footballers across the country.

A record-breaking journey

Sunil Chhetri, the iconic striker, holds both the all-time goalscoring and caps records for India. Just shy of his 40th birthday on August 3rd, Chhetri decided it was time to hang up his boots. With 94 goals from 150 games, he trails only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among active international goalscorers, a proof to his enduring consistency on the field.

For India, often referred to as the 'sleeping giant' in football, Chhetri's contributions have been monumental. Despite the dismissive attitudes of some football fans, particularly those who follow the global superstars, Chhetri’s achievements carry a unique significance. His 94 international goals symbolize more than just numbers; they represent the dreams and aspirations of a nation often overlooked on the world stage.

The 'North Star' of Indian Football

Sunil Chhetri has been the North Star of Indian football, consistently guiding the national team through times of despair and triumph alike. From his debut against Pakistan in Quetta in 2005, where he marked the occasion with a goal, it was clear that Chhetri was destined for greatness.

Chosen to captain the Indian football team by former star striker Bhaichung Bhutia, Chhetri's leadership has been as impactful as his goalscoring. His tenure included a historic stint with Major League Soccer’s Kansas City Wizards in 2010, making him one of the first notable players from the subcontinent to play overseas.

Chhetri's trophy cabinet is adorned with multiple titles:

- Jawaharlal Nehru Cup (2007, 2009, 2012)

- AFC Challenge Cup (2008)

- Hero Intercontinental Cup (2018, 2023)

- Hero Tri-Nation Cup (2017, 2023)

- SAFF Championship (2011, 2015, 2021, 2023)

His individual accolades include the Arjuna Award (2011), the Padma Shri (2019), and the Khel Ratna (2021), making him the first Indian athlete to compete on three continents.

What sets Chhetri apart?

Chhetri’s success is a product of his exceptional mentality and dedication. Even at 39, his physical fitness rivals that of much younger players.

"The retirement decision was not because of physical aspect, I am still fit, running, chasing, defending, the hard work is not difficult, the reason is to do with mental aspect", Chhetri said. His retirement decision stemmed not from physical decline but from a mental aspect that he chose to keep private.

Beyond his goals and leadership, Chhetri’s ability to communicate effectively with the media and his peers has been invaluable. His articulate and thoughtful approach to handling public and media relations has set a standard for future captains.

The impossible question

As Sunil Chhetri steps away from the international stage, a pressing question has emerged once again: "Who will replace Sunil Chhetri?" This question, however, is fundamentally flawed. Replacing Sunil Chhetri is impossible. Chhetri is an anomaly, much like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Scoring 94 goals from 150 games for India is no small feat. While new players will undoubtedly emerge and score goals, matching Chhetri's numbers and impact is unlikely.

A legacy that will endure

As Sunil Chhetri steps away from the international stage, Indian football faces the daunting task of filling the void left by its most iconic player. His influence, however, will continue to resonate through the young players he inspired and the legacy of professionalism and dedication he established.

The Indian football team will undoubtedly miss his goals and leadership, but they will also miss his voice—a captain who knew how to navigate the pressures of media scrutiny with grace and intelligence.

In celebrating Sunil Chhetri, we honor a career that has not only elevated Indian football but has also embodied the dreams and spirit of a nation. His legacy is not just in the records he set, but in the hope and inspiration he provided to millions.

"I have played 150 games for my country. And I'm extremely proud of it. No matter what happens tomorrow, no one can take that away from me," said Chhetri in his final press conference as Indian football team's captain.

"The whole of India agrees, captain!"

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