Chhangte & Co: Meet the men tipped to step into Sunil Chhetri’s giant shoes

It’s time for our country to see the next Number 9, retiring icon says

Chhangte in practice for Mumbai FC (Mumbai City FC)
Chhangte in practice for Mumbai FC (Mumbai City FC)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

There will be less than a week’s time for Igor Stimac to find a replacement for Sunil Chhetri in the striker position after all the floodgates of emotions open on his international farewell on 6 June. The Blue Tigers are scheduled to take Qatar, former Asian Cup champions, on 11 June in Doha in their final qualifier in the second round for the 2026 Fifa World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup finals.

A lot, of course, will depend on how Sunil Chhetri’s men can make the best use of home support against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium – as they need to punch much above their weight against No. 34 ranked Qatar.   

‘’I think it’s time for our country to see the next number 9. It is time we build on it. Already we are a little bit handicapped because a lot of players and a lot of my national team boys do not play as number nine for their clubs and that’s a different topic we can talk about. At least now when I am not going to be there, I am pretty sure a lot of them are going to step up and they will need time,’’ Sunil Chhetri said during his marathon virtual interaction with the media on Friday, 17 May.

The two names that are being touted to fill Sunil Chhetri’s big shoes are Lallianzuala Chhangte and young breakout star Vikram Partap Singh of Mumbai City FC, which became champions of the Indian Super League (ISL) Shield earlier this month. The two combined for three goals in stoppage time in the first leg of the ISL semi-finals to come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against FC Goa.

Lallianzuala Chhangte hugs Sunil Chhetri during the Intercontinental Cup final in 2023
Lallianzuala Chhangte hugs Sunil Chhetri during the Intercontinental Cup final in 2023

Chhangte, now 26, may have been in and out of the team ever since his debut as a teenager in 2015 but looks like the perfect candidate in the immediate future with the capability of speeding up the wings, ball skills and technical ability. Should Stimac employ a false nine – whereby the player has the freedom of providing as well instead of just lurking near the rival box – the Mizoram man may be better suited to the role.

The AIFF Men’s Footballer of the Year for 2022-23, Chhangte has seen his stocks rise in recent years, both at the club and country level. From being a winger who threatened the opposition in fits and starts to a player who inspired Mumbai City to an ISL League Winners Shield last season with 10 goals and six assists, he has come a long way and should be only too willing to fill in for the retiring legend.

Vikram Partap, who struck eight goals in their title-winning season, is 22 and is better suited for the centre forward’s role with his abilities to press and wait for the loose ball to strike against tougher opponents. Another possible candidate is Rahim Ali of Chennaiyin FC, who has on the odd occasions, been the man to replace Chhetri on the pitch as a substitute. He is also the only Indian player who has on occasion played as a centre forward for his club.

Meanwhile, Sunil Chhetri’s plan to sign off from Kolkata instead of the final game in Doha is understandable. This is the city where he had taken the first tentative steps in professional football, and met the love of his life while the Salt Lake Stadium remains a venue very close to his heart.

‘’Just come and encourage us as you always do. No matter how the local clubs are performing in Kolkata, whenever the national team plays, they come in numbers and they’re outstanding. So just don’t be nervous. I know it’s a big game. Let’s enjoy it, and hopefully, we can all go happy after the game,’’ he dropped a message for Kolkata fans.

During his long international career, Sunil Chhetri has often taken upon the role of urging the fans to fill up the stadium for the Indian team. This is one last time, and count on the local fans to oblige.

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