Sunil Chhetri’s international retirement: A farewell where India could make history | Football News - Hindustan Times

Sunil Chhetri’s international retirement: A farewell where India could make history

ByDhiman Sarkar, Kolkata
Jun 05, 2024 08:50 PM IST

Progressing to the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers will be the biggest achievement of my career, says Stimac.

“Of course, we would love to celebrate Sunil Chhetri’s last game but this is about India beating Kuwait. I will put it in a few words: we are ready.” Igor Stimac was trying to provide a context for a match beyond it being the farewell for an icon. Hard as it is to live down the sense of an ending, India must do exactly that on Thursday. It is what Chhetri would want.

India's captain Sunil Chhetri (L) speaks with coach Igor Stimac during a practice session(AFP)
India's captain Sunil Chhetri (L) speaks with coach Igor Stimac during a practice session(AFP)

For, at stake is a passage to where India have never been: the third round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. A finals berth in the 2027 Asian Cup is a perk that comes with the package.

“If we qualify to the third round, it will be the biggest achievement of my career as player and coach,” said Stimac. This from a man who has a World Cup bronze, a World Youth Championship gold, has coached Croatia, played in the Premier League and has a lounge named after him at Derby County.

“When I joined (in 2019), I had tried to keep emotions away. Over time, I failed to do that and now I feel more Indian than many. It is said if you can make one person happy, you have done well. Here is an opportunity to make 1.4 billion happy. This is a game that can change the future of Indian football,” said Stimac.

To a room that had nearly 200 journalists, Chhetri took the idea forward. “So many of you have come for this game. Imagine India playing Japan or Australia here in the third round. I am getting goosebumps.”

For any of that to happen, victory against Kuwait is a must. That will take India to seven points and take Kuwait out of the equation for the second place in the four-team group A where Qatar are in pole position. If Qatar beat Afghanistan on Thursday, it will virtually seal the second spot for India and a berth among Asia’s elite 18. That will mean 10 matches against quality opponents between September and June 2025.

Which was why the captain and coach tried to play down all talk of the final goodbye. “This is one of the biggest games I have played in 19 years,” said Chhetri. “It's not about me and my last game, it's about us and Kuwait. And inside me I'm fighting a small battle, please don't make it worse asking, "how are you feeling", again and again.” But with players saying they want to do it for Chhetri and over 60,000 expected at Salt Lake stadium, managing emotions will be crucial.

A reference point in Asian football after playing the 1982 World Cup finals, Kuwait have slipped since and are ranked 139, 18 slots behind India. “With our knowledge and experience, we are trying to help but the process takes time. I think we are on the right track,” said Rui Bento, the former Portugal international and Kuwait’s head coach since 2022.

In three matches last year, India were unbeaten against them. The first two in the SAFF Championship ended 1-1 with India winning the final in the tie-breaker. Last November, India beat them away 1-0. “It will be a battle,” said Chhetri.

They have good individual quality, said Stimac. “Even though Kuwait lost twice to Qatar (0-3 and 1-2), I thought they did really well in the second game.”

“We are better prepared now than we were in 2023,” said Bento. Near the end of their league season, the squad trained for a week in Bangkok before coming here.

In five matches since playing Kuwait away last November, India have scored only once. But a three-week preparatory camp in Bhubaneswar and here has given Stimac a “good headache in terms of selection,” said Chhetri. “The players I will choose are the best at this moment, not how good they were one month ago,” said Stimac.

He said Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will start in goal because of his experience. A member of the coaching staff said Rahul Bheke and Anwar Ali are likely to be in central defence with Nikhil Poojary as right-back. With the in-form Lalengmawia Ralte (Apuia) opting out to prepare for a post-graduate examination, Jeakson Singh and Suresh Wangjam could pair in central midfield with Liston Colaco, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Sahal Abdul Samad starting ahead of them. Chhetri will operate as striker.

Since the game against Kuwait away, there has been no impact from the bench, said Stimac. “That has been terrifying for me and we have spoken about that.” It is possible that forward David Lalhlansanga and midfielder Edmund Lalrindika, who have made the squad from the I-League, will get minutes on Thursday or against Qatar on June 11.

It is also possible that Jay Gupta will get his first start. Chhetri has said he wouldn’t care if Sandhu scored the winner or it came from an own goal, but how about left-back Gupta setting it up for him, arrival and departure conjuring up a perfect farewell? It could turn out differently but when do you dream if not the night before kick-off?

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