I have had a great ride, let’s focus on the Kuwait game now: Sunil Chettri

Talismanic captain keeps emotions in check in crowded final press conference

Sunil Chettri with the team's head coach Igor Stimac
Sunil Chettri with the team's head coach Igor Stimac

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The last three weeks or so had only one trending topic in Indian football – that of it’s talismanic skipper Sunil Chettri calling time on his international career after their crunch second-round FIFA 2026 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata on Thursday.

It was again the overriding theme at what ought to be his final pre-match media conference as the captain of the Blue Tigers, despite history beckoning the team to make their first-ever third round in the qualifiers.

If there was an emotional upheaval going on inside the 39-year-old as he sat next to head coach Igor Stimac for one last time, Chettri tried his best not to let it overshadow the importance of the match at hand.

‘’I have been fighting a small battle inside me all along. We are done on the subject of my retirement and I request you not to bring it up again and again…right now, we are ready take on Kuwait and the match is not going to be easy,’’ Chettri told a choc-a-bloc gathering at the Salt Lake Stadium.

The request had an impact for a while before queries were again directed at him and Stimac, the Croat with whom he had forged an excellent chemistry for last five years – ranging from whether Chettri would like to sign off with a goal, if he would reconsider his decision of quitting to who would be the new Number 9 (the quintessential striker) in Chettri’s absence.

‘’It’s been a well thought out decision and there is no question of reconsidering it. I have had a great ride over 19 years and this is the best game to call time on my career,’’ said Chettri, who ranks third among international goalscorers in active football with 94 strikes in 150 matches with only Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi ahead of him.        

A place in the third round will also ensure India’s direct qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2027 in Saudi Arabia, thrice in a row, prompting Stimac to say a few days earlier that it would be the ‘most important game for Blue Tigers in last three decades.’  

The top two teams from each group from the second round will head into the third round of the Fifa qualifiers, where 18 countries will be split into three groups of six and play each other on a home-and-away basis.

 ‘’If we earn full points tomorrow, then we are more or less guaranteed of a place in third round though there could a few permutations and combinations. Who knows in the next round, we would be taking on a Japan or Australia. Meanwhile, I would like to wear a nice suit and attend each of these games as a fan,’’ Chettri told the media in good humour.

 Stimac, a star central defender of Croatia’s bronze medallist team in the 1998 FIFA World Cup (apart from being a member of their Youth World Cup winning squad) wanted his boys not to lose sight of the bigger picture on the occasion of Chettri’s final international.

‘’The job against Kuwait will not be easy as they are not only a side with superior build, but have some very skillful players. We have faced them thrice in over the past year now with our best game being in Kuwait City last year (India won the first leg 1-0). We need to maintain the same defensive shape in the game tomorrow,’’ said the Croat, who once had the decorated Luka Modric under his wings.

For someone who has been there and done that in global football, Stimac looked to have invested a part of his soul in Indian football. ‘’I feel more like an Indian now and despite all that I have achieved in my career, I will still say this is the most important match of my career,’’ said Stimac, urging the fans to act as the 12th member of the team: ‘’Support and keep pushing us. Keep faith on us till the final whistle.’’

Captain Chettri was quick to echoe his sentiments.  Over then to the cavernous venue, where more than 62,000 fans – sporting Chettri masks to be handed over by the hosting state body – will be present to make his send-off a memorable affair!

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