Who after Sunil Chhetri? Time to face the dreaded question now

‘The kid inside me will probably keep fighting to play football, but the sensible, nature player and person knows that this is it’

Sunil Chettri reacts during a football match (photo courtesy: AIFF)
Sunil Chettri reacts during a football match (photo courtesy: AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Who after Sunil Chhetri? This had been the oft-repeated question for managers of India’s senior football teams for close to a decade now. The crunch time has finally come as after the Blue Tigers’ crucial FIFA 2026 World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait in Kolkata on 6 June, the talismanic India captain will bow out of the international arena after a career spanning almost 20 years.

For his legion of fans, the one-from-the-heart statement from Chhetri on his social media handles on Thursday morning, 16 May, was like living the cliché that like all good things, his saga had to end at some point. Now 39, the provider-striker-leader had dropped enough clues that the ongoing stage of 2026 qualifiers till June could be his last – and if the team manages to keep it’s date with a historic third round – the send-off from the Kolkata crowd in three weeks’ time will be quite an affair to remember.    

The global football fraternity has, all these years, treated Chhetri as a kind of anomaly. Their curiosity arises from the fact that how a country, which had been perennially languishing at 100-plus in FIFA rankings could still produce the third highest goal scorer among active footballers at the international game after the peerless Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The answer surely lies in a combination of natural talent, fitness and work ethic – qualities which always had his coaches and teammates gushing about the man who took his international bow against Pakistan in 2005. Last March, he earned his 150th cap for India and scored his 94th goal against Afghanistan in Guwahati. India though lost that game 1-2.

Sunil Chhetri with Igor Stimac
Sunil Chhetri with Igor Stimac

There is an endless list of teammates, mentors and coaches who have touched the icon’s life – but none possibly more than Subrata Bhattacharya, the legendary India and Mohun Bagan defender of the seventies and eighties and then a decorated coach. Bhattacharya, who brought a promising teenager in Sunil to Mohun Bagan at the beginning of the new millennium and went on to become his father-in-law in 2017, welcomed his decision to sign off from international arena.

‘’It’s very much his personal decision but I feel that the timing could not have been better,’’ Bhattacharya told National Herald over phone. ‘’Of course, we have been in the loop about his plans and it’s good that he can be seen at least for a while more in club football where the pressure on him will be less,’’ said Bhattacharya, father of Sunil’s wife Sonam.

Asked how difficult will it be to fill the vacuum left by him in the national team, where Chhetri had been the biggest inspirational figure since Bhaichung Bhutia’s departure, Bhattacharya sounded more objective rather than being emotional. ‘’He is a part of our strong football legacy which has produced the likes of Ahmed Khan, Chuni-PK-Balaram, Surojit Sengupta and Subhas Bhowmick. When a long serving performer leaves the arena, there is a sense of emptiness but then replacements take place with time.’’

Speaking from Bhubaneswar, where the probables for the India squad for the Kuwait game are undergoing a preparation camp, Chhetri poured his heart out in a nine minute, 51 second video post on X: ‘’The kid inside me will probably keep fighting to play football, but the sensible, nature player and person knows that this is it, but it wasn’t easy.’’

 ‘’The feel that I recollect in the last 19 years is a very nice combination of duty, pressure and immense joy,’’ said Chhetri.

‘’I never thought individually these are the games I’ve played for the country, this is what I’ve done good, I’ve done bad. But, now I did it, this last one-and-a-half two months. It felt very strange,’’ he said. ‘’I did it because I was going towards the decision that the next game was going to be my last.’’

However, the last thing Chhetri wants is any form of hype over his decision serving as a distraction ahead of the Kuwait game – but it will inevitable in the city where his journey began as a rookie professional with the maroon-and-green brigade. ‘’ One last game…for all our sakes…let’s win the game and we can depart happily,’’ was his clarion call.

The news has also stirred the Indian football officialdom, with AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey addressing him as an absolute icon and a legend. ‘’Indian football has benefitted from his presence in many a way,’’ remarked Chaubey, who has matched wits against the star many a times during his playing career.

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