My ties with Sunil Chhetri are more that of a coach and player: Igor Stimac

Croatian head coach wants the Blue Tigers to give their captain a memorable send-off on 6 June

Igor Stimac with Sunil Chhetri during the Asian Cup (photo courtesy: AIFF)
Igor Stimac with Sunil Chhetri during the Asian Cup (photo courtesy: AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The chemistry between Sunil Chhetri and Igor Stimac, the Indian senior football team’s head coach, has been too well-documented over the last five years. The former Croatian World Cupper – himself an admirer of the Indian captain’s work ethic – urged the team to rise to the occasion on 6 June to make it a memorable send-off for him.  

‘’I just wish we all do everything to make 6th June very memorable for him and all Indian football fans,’’ Stimac said, referring to their 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier second-round game against Kuwait in Kolkata – which would be Chhetri’s last international match after a career spanning over 19 years. The morning after Chhetri’s heartfelt video message on social media about his international retirement, it’s still the biggest talking point in the country’s sporting landscape.  

"He became a legend while still playing and that’s something only a few can do. He’s an inspiration to everyone, absolutely committed to the Indian jersey which is something these youngsters need to follow. Playing for the country with passion and love, and as he said with intense joy, Stimac told the AIFF media team.

 The Chhetri-Stimac relationship was one built on mutual relationship and trust. If Stimac knew that his captain was a rare gem amid the overwhelming mediocrity of Indian football, Chhetri had a complete buy-in in the coach’s philosophy – an association which certainly raised some hopes though not with always commensurate results.

‘’⁠I had the pleasure of coaching such a wonderful human being and getting to know his beautiful family,’’ he said. ‘’We were more than simply a coach and a player and I am very proud of the relationship we have amongst us and the group. I am very confident that whatever he decides to do after football will have an immense impact on society in a very positive way. He was born to become a GOAT.’’

For the lanky goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who also shared a dressing room with Chhetri for Bengaluru FC, it was more of an emotional response. Asked who could take Chhetri’s place in the team, Sandhu said: ‘’It’s not difficult, it’s impossible to replace a legend like him in the dressing room, but we have to face the reality. I also hope Sunil bhai finds the mental and physical peace he deserves after serving the nation for almost two decades.

‘’My message to him would be: Bhai abhi bhi waqt hai, video delete kar do aur bol do, just joking. I am still around. (Brother, there's still time. Delete the video and say that I was joking.),’’ Sandhu added in jest.

Finally, what would be his most memorable moment on Chhetri on the pitch? ‘’I think every single goal that I have seen him score while I was on the pitch has been the most memorable moment of my playing time with him. The goal against Kyrgyzstan at the Kanteerava (Asian Cup Qualifiers in 2017), the chip against Kenya (Intercontinental Cup in 2018) and countless others.

‘’I think the banter that we have when he’s practising finishing against the goalkeepers during training is something I will miss a lot,’’ Gurpreet shared.

Sunil Chhetri: A glorious international career in figures

 Born: 3 August, 1984

Debut on 12 June, 2005: vs Pakistan (Quetta)

Matches played: 150 (captain in 87 matches)

Goals scored: 94 (Top goalscorer for India) 

Trophies won

Jawaharlal Nehru Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2012

AFC Challenge Cup in 2008

Hero Intercontinental Cup in 2018 and 2023

Hero Tri-Nation Cup in 2017 and 2023

SAFF Cup in 2011, 2015, 2021 and 2023


First Indian to score 50 international goals

Scored four hat-tricks for India. Vs Tajikistan in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup Final at New Delhi; Vs Vietnam in 2010 Friendly at Pune; Vs Chinese Taipei in 2018 Intercontinental Cup at Mumbai; Vs Pakistan in 2023 SAFF Cup

Only Indian to score a hat-trick in the final of an international tournament – AFC Challenge Cup at New Delhi – 2008

Scored in three finals of the SAFF Cup 2011, 2015-16 and 2021

 Scored at least one goal in his first, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 125th and 150th matches.


Arjuna in 2011

Padma Shri in 2019

Khel Ratna in 2021

Asian Icon by the AFC in 2018

AIFF Player of the Year in 2007, 2011, 2013,2014, 2017, 2019

FPAI Player of the Year in 2009 and 2018

AFC Challenge Cup Most Valuable Player in 2008

SAFF Player of the Tournament in 2011

Hero of the Intercontinental Cup in 2018

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