So long and farewell Sunil Chhetri | Football News - Hindustan Times

So long and farewell Sunil Chhetri

ByDhiman Sarkar, Kolkata
Jun 06, 2024 10:45 PM IST

The 0-0 draw against Kuwait meant the ending wasn’t perfect for India and their captain

One colour. Blue. One name. Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri acknowledges the crowd after India's 0-0 draw against Kuwait(HT/Samir Jana)
Sunil Chhetri acknowledges the crowd after India's 0-0 draw against Kuwait(HT/Samir Jana)

They say the crest in front is more important than the name on the back and Sunil Chhetri would be the last player to contest that. He had said as much, repeatedly in the build-up to this second round World Cup qualifier against Kuwait. But then, it was also the last time he was wearing the India blue, the journey ending in Kolkata 19 years after it began in Quetta and this was the Indian football fan’s way of acknowledging that. A tribute to a man who, having kept time at bay, had finally decided enough was indeed enough.

Also Read | Sunil Chhetri inconsolable as India teammates reserve guard of honour to goalscoring legend in farewell match vs Kuwait

“Thank you everyone who came today and those who watched me for these 19 years,” said Chhetri after being feted by Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting, the Indian Football Association and the All India Football Federation.

When the India team bus reached the stadium at five minutes past five, it bisected a throng of fans who had Chhetri on their backs and were waiting, their mobiles ready. When Chhetri stepped on the pitch one hour later, the still-filling amphitheatre echoed with his name. How could he not acknowledge that? He did.

When Luka Radman, India’s strength and conditioning coach, called the outfield players to warm-up, photographers made a beeline for that side of the pitch. This was an evening where every move Chhetri made, every breath he took would be committed to memory. Because there wouldn’t be another time.

A tifo slung on the middle tier summed up the mood of the enervating evening: “Thanks Captain, Leader, Legend.” Next to it, “India till I die.” Before kick-off, tifos featuring Chhetri were unfurled in different corners. One showed Chhetri with the globe on his shoulders, the India map highlighted, with other legends like Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee and Bhaichung Bhutia standing alongside.

It was an exaggeration, yes, but only just. No one has scored 94 goals for the country, no one has played 151 internationals. What did he bring to the team, Igor Stimac was asked? “Goals, leadership,” said the India head coach. “He began scoring and never really stopped.”

“Don’t blow the final whistle, referee,” said another tifo. It is what Real Madrid had said when Zinedine Zidane bowed out, and again when Toni Kroos did.

From IM Vijayan, once a senior now head of the All India Football Federation’s technical committee, to Renedy Singh, whose deliveries he would convert for club and country, Dipendu Biswas, Alvito d’Cunha, Climax Lawrence, Eugeneson Lyngdo and Dipankar Roy, Chhetri’s teammates over the years, were in the stands. They wouldn’t miss this for anything.

Neither would his family. Parents Kharga and Sushila, wife Sonam were in the crowd of 58,921. All hoping for a moment that would make the evening special. That would make the cries of “Chhetri, Chhetri” from reaching a crescendo. It didn’t come.

India started poorly. Probably, for all talk of keeping emotions at bay in this must-win game, the occasion had got the better of them. They needed Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to use every bit of 1.98m frame to deny Mohammad Abdullah. Kuwait had spotted a chink on the right side of India’s defence but again Sandhu flew to his left to collect an ball that could have been dangerous.

Sandhu was good all evening, reproducing the form that had made him India’s No.1 for years, showing that what had happened in 2023 was a blip. “He was brilliant,” said Stimac.

Anwar Ali was sure in defence but should have done better with a free header early in the match. Introduced in the second half, Rahim Ali used his strength and speed to break free twice but couldn’t beat Sulaiman Abdulghafoor in Kuwait’s goal.

Chhetri had made the most sprints, 14, in the first half but Kuwait had kept him in check. Central defender Hasan Alanezi’s excellent block stopped the delivery from Liston Colaco from reaching the one player everyone in the cauldron wanted it to go to. Alanezi was again in the right place at the right time to prevent debutant Jay Gupta’s delivery from reaching Sahal Abdul Samad.

Another corner-kick, the teams got 10 each, led to another header from Ali that didn’t trouble the goalie. Colaco did beat the last player but hit the side-netting. Four corner-kicks India forced in the 58th minute but none went to Chhetri. A set-piece routine from Brandon Fernandes meant for him skidded agonizingly wide, Chhetri’s flick for Ali didn’t yield anything. Perfect farewells are not for everyone.

On the final whistle, Chhetri slouched. Then he stood to his full height, sucked in the evening air before it was time for hugs and handshakes. India’s players stood back as Chhetri walked around the pitch acknowledging the crowd as his goals were played on the giant screen. Love, actually on a football pitch? It happened at Salt Lake stadium on Thursday.

Till he walked the perimeter of the pitch, head bowed and steps leaden-footed but also remembering to raise arms and clasp them, Chhetri had held himself together. When he had finished, Chhetri couldn’t prevent the tears anymore. Amrinder Singh held him as Chhetri tried to compose himself. One more wave, and he was off. For the last time.

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