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Sunil Chhetri – A Captain, a Torchbearer, an Undying Flame of Indian Football

Sunil Chhetri can't be judged by goals or accolades, as his legacy goes beyond that. Here's what makes him special.

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Football
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Imagine the cacophony of a nation – a billion voices united in a single roar. Now imagine that roar isn’t for a six hit by Virat Kohli, but for a perfectly placed football finding the back of the net. This, the dream Sunil Chhetri has tirelessly chased for over two decades, is the essence of his legacy — a relentless pursuit to elevate and better Indian football.

A couple of days back, a video flickered to life on India coach Igor Stimac’s social media. There, Luka Modric, a titan of world football, offered a simple yet profound message to Chhetri, on the eve of his international swansong: “You are a legend of this game.” Modric’s words weren’t mere platitudes but were a recognition of a career built on unwavering dedication.

But accolades only tell part of the story. What truly sets Chhetri apart is the resolute hope he’s embodied for a nation where football is popular only in pockets.
Sunil Chhetri can't be judged by goals or accolades, as his legacy goes beyond that. Here's what makes him special.

Image: AIFF

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Chhetri — Going Beyond Just Scoring Goals

Chhetri’s story isn’t a neatly packaged montage of trophies. It’s etched in the raw emotion that played out on his face on a fateful night in Sharjah during India’s last Group A game of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup against Bahrain. With the score line goalless, a heartbreaking last-minute goal from a penalty snatched a point from India’s grasp, dashing their dreams of a historic maiden knockout berth.

The cameras caught Chhetri, his features a mask of despair, a testament to the years of blood, sweat, and belief he had poured into the beautiful game. In that moment, Chhetri wasn’t just a player. He was the embodiment of Indian football’s fight for recognition.

Now, as Chhetri prepares to play his final game for India — a World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata on 6 June, 2024 — the stakes are high. A win would almost guarantee a third-round qualification for India, a feat never achieved before. And Chhetri isn’t focused on personal glory.
I don’t care who scores, as long as we win. It would be huge. It’s all going to change.
Sunil Chhetri

This statement reflects the bigger picture Chhetri has always painted — the collective success of Indian football supersedes individual achievements.

Sunil Chhetri can't be judged by goals or accolades, as his legacy goes beyond that. Here's what makes him special.

The Unmatched Legacy of Sunil Chhetri

Over the years, Chhetri has become a promise of better things to come in a sport which often plays second fiddle to cricket in the country. But the 39-year-old striker has consistently delivered on his promise — game after game, year after year. He rose above the collective ‘good enough’ mentality, the one that often plagued Indian sports. He wasn’t content with just participation; he craved excellence, demanded it from himself and his teammates.

There were moments of heartbreak, of course. World Cup qualifiers that ended in gut-wrenching defeats, the AFC Asian Cup where progress was tantalizingly close. Yet, Chhetri never faltered.

That’s why his legacy isn't just about the record-breaking number of appearances — 150 — or goals — a staggering 94, placing him behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi amongst active international scorers. It’s about the belief he instilled in a nation.
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The Leader Who Dared to Dream on the Global Stage

Sunil Chhetri can't be judged by goals or accolades, as his legacy goes beyond that. Here's what makes him special.

Chhetri’s international stints, including playing for Sporting Clube de Portugal and Kansas City Wizards, were not just about personal growth. They were about bringing global perspectives to Indian football, which he did with grace and excellence. His experiences abroad enriched the national team’s tactics and spirit, proving instrumental in India’s evolving football narrative.

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An Unparalleled Connection With Fans

Perhaps Chhetri’s most significant impact lies in his deep connection with his fans. Remember his 100th international appearance? A brace against Laos, a mere footnote compared to the thunderous roar from the stands. Mumbai, a city traditionally indifferent to football, had transformed. Chhetri, through a simple social media plea, had galvanized the city. The stands, usually echoing with emptiness, were packed on a rainy weekday night. Chhetri, with his brace, had delivered on his implicit promise: “I’m doing my bit, now it’s your turn.”

Sunil Chhetri can't be judged by goals or accolades, as his legacy goes beyond that. Here's what makes him special.
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Preparing for The Final Whistle

Now, as Sunil Chhetri prepares to hang up his boots for the national team, a disquiet hangs in the air. Who will carry the torch? Who will become the symbol of hope, the one who inspires a generation to chase seemingly impossible dreams?

And, perhaps that’s the greatest testament to Chhetri’s legacy. Even when the likes of eminent Indian strikers IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia retired, he didn’t shy away from the responsibility, shouldering the burden of expectation with grace and determination.

Now, there will be a void to fill. But there’s a quiet hope, though, a belief that Chhetri’s influence will linger. Maybe a young boy, watching his final game in Kolkata, will dream of emulating not just his skills, but his spirit. Maybe a new generation will rise, one that isn’t content with mediocrity, that dares to believe in the impossible.

And that’s how we can bid farewell to a legend. The baton will be passed, a challenge issued: carry the torch forward, keep the dream alive.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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