Indian football: How long can one ride piggyback on Sunil Chhetri at 39?

Hopes of making a first-ever third round in Fifa World Cup qualifiers a mirage now

Chhetri in action against Afghanistan on Tuesday. (AIFF)
Chhetri in action against Afghanistan on Tuesday. (AIFF)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Professional sport does not often allow for fairytale finishes – and Sunil Chhetri knows it too well. The talismanic India captain had appealed to the fans not to get swayed by his 150th international appearance on Tuesday, 26 March and as it turned out, even such a sense of occasion failed to spur the team to hold onto a thin lead as they ended up with a 2-1 defeat against Afghanistan.

One had to feel sorry for the 39-year-old as he sat with his head hung low in the dugout as the Blue Tigers’ dream of making a historic third round of the 2026 Fifa World Cup qualifiers seem to be slipping away. Poised at four points alongwith Afghanistan, they have a make-or-break home match against Kuwait in Kolkata on 6 June and then have to contend the mighty group toppers Qatar, but the missed opportunities against a lower ranked Afghanistan will come back to haunt them badly.

A distraught Sunil Chhetri after India's defeat in Guwahati (screengrab from Jio Cinema)
A distraught Sunil Chhetri after India's defeat in Guwahati (screengrab from Jio Cinema)
Jio Cinema

How long can Indian football hope to ride piggbyback on the 39-year-old Chhetri, who had put his team ahead from the spot in Guwahati on Tuesday? The football pundits are up in arms at Igor Stimac’s decision of pulling out the ageing star in the 68th minute – as the move definitely eased the pressure on the Afghans who equalised within minutes and then scored the matchwinner off a penalty after a needless foul by goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

There is certainly an argument in this, but it does not reflect well on the assembly line of Indian football as well as the impact of Stimac’s five-year reign if they are still so overtly reliant on a person who has served in international football for two decades and is on borrowed time. In an ideal scenario, Chhetri’s experience and goal-poaching ability should be used in short bursts for maximum impact – instead of playing the leader, provider and main scorer all rolled into one.

A day before the Afghanistan match, Stimac struck a wrong note at the pre-match press conference by saying he would quit with pride if the team failed to keep the date with the third round – which would help them qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup finals as well. The fact, however, is that as per his terms with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Stimac’s two-year contract extension till 2026 is actually subject to the national team’s progress to third round. The contract, however, will stand terminated if they fail to progress further.

The overriding feeling among the Indian football fan, who saw a glimmer of hope last year with the national team emerging champions in three back-to-back regional events, almost seem a distant memory. While a hastily put together team managed to make the second round of Asian Games and scored a creditable first leg win over Kuwait in the Fifa 2026 qualifier, their goal-drought in the Asian Cup finals in Doha and then again the recent matches was frustrating enough for the fans.

It seems a case of one step forward, two steps back again for Indian football which from being 99th in the Fifa rankings last August, has now slipped to 117. The AIFF top brass (read: president Kalyan Choubey) may be too happy to see Stimac’s back – but will it bring about a change of luck?

Your guess is as good as mine!  

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