Onus on other players to take up mantle after Sunil Chhetri retires: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu | Football News - Hindustan Times

Onus on other players to take up mantle after Sunil Chhetri retires: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

May 31, 2024 08:34 PM IST

The team assembled in Kolkata ahead of its must-win World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on June 6, which will be Sunil Chhetri's final international appearance.

India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu on Friday said that other players will have to step up and take the national team forward after the retirement of talismanic captain and striker Sunil Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu(AIFF)
Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu(AIFF)

The team assembled in Kolkata for training ahead of its must-win World Cup qualifier against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium on June 6 which will be the long-serving skipper Chhetri's final international appearance.

"The onus is on the players to take up the mantle. Eventually, this was going to happen, and we have to learn to cope without him (Chhetri)," Sandhu said during a media interaction at the National Centre of Excellence here.

"We have also experienced playing without Sunil Bhai in some matches in the past. It's not that we have done really badly; we need to manage things without him. New players need to show up and take the nation forward."

India had famously played out a goal-less draw against mighty Qatar -- twice Asian Cup champions (2019 and 2024) -- in Doha in a 2022 World Cup qualifying round match in September 2019 when Chhetri sat out due to illness.

Chhetri has scored 94 goals from 150 matches in a career spanning 19 years. He is currently the third leading active international goal scorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

"In my personal opinion, it's impossible to replicate what Sunil Bhai has done in these years. But Sunil bhai has given us the blueprint, the map, and if you follow that you may not become the next Chhetri but can come close enough to his greatness."

The Blue Tigers began their World Cup qualifiers in Group A with a 1-0 away win over Kuwait, their first in over two decades.

However, their performance has since deteriorated, suffering a 0-3 defeat to Qatar in Bhubaneswar, followed by a draw and a loss to lower-ranked Afghanistan.

While Qatar is leading the Group A table with 12 points, India, with four points are placed second, ahead of Afghanistan on goal difference. Kuwait have three points.

To qualify for the next AFC Asian Cup and third round of World Cup qualifiers, Igor Stimac's team must finish in the top two after the second round.

If India qualify for the third round of World Cup Qualifiers, it will be a first for them and would mean 10 more matches against the best in Asia over the course of a year, not to forget direct qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.

‘Focus on match’

Gurpreet further stressed on the importance of maintaining normalcy and consistent preparation and hoped that Chhetri's winning goal against Kuwait will be the best parting shot.

"Everything is pretty normal, and we are keeping it that way. Trying to do something out of the ordinary would only distract people.

"I'm sure Sunil Bhai shares the same philosophy: keep it normal and prepare in the best manner possible. Hopefully, we will see him scoring the winning goal against Kuwait, that will be the most special moment for us," he said.

He said Chhetri's final appearance in India colours should be a moment which everybody should celebrate "for such a significant figure in Indian football".

"I've been fortunate enough to enjoy the majority of my career alongside him. Working behind him for matches has always been an honour.

"Now, we're trying to focus on the game and the opposition to secure a result. Hopefully, we can give our captain a good send-off, keeping the energy positive," he added.

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