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Farewell, Sunil Chhetri – Retracing Path Which Made Him Captain, Leader, Legend

Walking down the memory lane to trace Sunil Chhetri's remarkable journey in football.

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Football
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On 6 June 2024 – nearly two decades since his debut in national colours – Sunil Chhetri will be bidding farewell to his international football career. Having commenced his illustrious journey as a diminutive and portly, yet, deceptively strong and technically gifted wunderkind, Chhetri would retire as arguably India’s greatest-ever footballer, with 94 goals and 11 international trophies supporting his case in that argument.

Let us take a walk down the memory lane with Chhetri, and trace the path which made him the epitome of the phrase he is associated with – Captain, Leader, Legend.

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Station 1 – Kindling Kolkata

Though Chhetri began kicking a ball at the tender age of three, he was never heralded as among India’s teen prodigies. Not only did he never represent India at the U-16 and U-17 level, but at the age of 16, he was not a part of any professional club either.

The first move was aided by his friend, Amit Sharma, whose recommendation earned Chhetri a contract with the City Club. Fate smiled upon him, as on that very year, City Club got the opportunity to compete in the Durand Cup – the oldest tournament in Asia.

Chhetri featured in all of City Club’s four games, but his crowning moment was scoring against Indian Navy, earning him a trial at one of India’s most decorated clubs – Mohun Bagan. An impressive audition followed, wherein Chhetri scored with a bicycle kick, leaving his then-coach and now father-in-law, Subrata Bhattacharya spellbound.

Station 2 – Quetta Quest

2005 saw Chhetri heading to the west from the east, as he joined Punjab’s JCT FC. His journey, however, did not come to a halt as he progressed further west, until he reached Quetta. India was on a historic tour of Pakistan for a three-match series, and Chhetri was poised to make his debut in the opening game.

His arrival in international football was announced spectacularly. Chhetri scored the opening goal of the match, providing those who brandished Indian flags at the Pakistani Stadium a moment they would never forget. Though, little did anyone know it was the first of 94 international goals.

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Station 3 – Delhi Dream, Vol. 1

Chhetri won the first of his record seven AIFF Player of the Year awards in 2007, and in the same year, he celebrated his maiden international title, winning the Nehru Cup.

He emerged as India’s top scorer in the tournament, netting four goals. He bagged a brace against Cambodia and scored crucial goals against formidable teams like Syria and Kyrgyzstan. In Delhi, the city where his journey began, Chhetri savoured his inaugural coronation.

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Station 4 – Delhi Dream, Vol. 2

The Nehru Cup triumph had already established Chhetri’s importance in the Indian team, albeit he needed sustained success – something he lacked in his initial days – to ensure the management believed the performance in Delhi was not a flash in the pan.

At that same venue – the Dr Ambedkar Stadium – but a year later, Chhetri produced an even more remarkable performance. He scored a hat-trick in the final of the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, as India beat Tajikistan 4-1. To date, it is the solitary hat-trick by any Indian footballer in the final of any international competition.

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Station 5 – USA Utopia

Chhetri's goal-scoring spree attracted interest from various clubs, some of which were rather unexpected names. England’s Leeds United were reportedly interested in signing him, and whilst that move never materialised, he was on the verge of playing for Queens Park Rangers, prior to being denied a work permit by the British government.

But the move abroad eventually transpired in 2010, when Chhetri joined Major League Soccer outfit Kansas City Wizards, now called Sporting Kansas City. This made Chhetri the first Indian footballer to sign for an MLS club. Representing the reserve team, he scored a hat-trick against Evansville, albeit the highlight from his USA days was the cameo against Manchester United in a friendly.

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Station 6 – Portugal Panache

After a third stint in Kolkata, where he represented Chirag United and Mohun Bagan, Chhetri ventured abroad once more. His newest destination was Cristiano Ronaldo’s boyhood club, Sporting Clube de Portugal.

Whilst he never made a league appearance for the Kansas City Wizards, Chhetri played three league matches during the Lisbon stint, albeit it was with the reserve team in the Portuguese second flight. This move made him the first-ever Indian footballer to play in three different continents – Asia, North America and Europe.

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Station 7 – Beloved Bengaluru

Playing on loan from Sporting Clube de Portugal, Chhetri had a pivotal part to play in Churchill Brothers’ 2012-13 I-League triumph, netting eight goals. Justifiably, the Goan club – then considered a powerhouse in Indian football – wanted to make the move permanent.

However, an alternative option soon arrived in the form of Bengaluru. Never one to shy away from challenges, Chhetri chose the newly-formed club over the established giant. The Blues went on to win the league in the first year of their existence, and so far, Chhetri has won seven national-level trophies with Bengaluru.

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Station 8 – Majestic Mumbai

The 2017-18 season saw Chhetri at the peak of his powers, scoring 24 goals – his best-ever tally from a single season. Though Bengaluru missed out on the Indian Super League title by a whisker, Chhetri had a chance to redeem himself – be it in a different jersey – only three months later.

Chhetri starred in India’s 2018 Intercontinental Cup triumph, scoring a brace in the final against Kenya at the Mumbai Football Arena. This achievement also made him the joint second-highest goal-scorer in international men's football at the time, equaling Lionel Messi's tally of 64 goals for Argentina.

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Station 9 – Rashtrapati Bhavan

Chhetri had won the Arjuna Award – India’s second-highest sporting honour – in 2011. Eight years later, he won the Padma Shri – India’s fourth-highest civilian honour. But no footballer had ever won the Khel Ratna Award – India’s highest sporting accolade.

That changed in 2021, when Chhetri was bestowed with the honour by the erstwhile President, Ram Nath Kovind, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. He also led India to their eighth SAFF Championship triumph this year, yet again scoring in the final.

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Station 10 – Beloved Bengaluru, Vol. 2

Chhetri’s form took a dip at the turn of this century’s third decade, but he rediscovered rhythm in the 2022-23 season by scoring 10 goals for Bengaluru. This resurgence was a prelude to his stellar performance for the national team.

At the 2023 SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, Chhetri netted five goals as India won their ninth title. In the process, he also surpassed Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari’s record of 89 goals to become the fourth-highest goal-scorer of all time in international football – behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Ali Daei and Lionel Messi.

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