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Sunil Chhetri’s Last Match – An Unprecedented Au Revoir for an Unparalleled Icon

Like his debut, Sunil Chhetri tried his best in his last match, but couldn't win. Today, though, it doesn't matter.

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Football
3 min read
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This was an – arguably – unprecedented sight.

Even for Kolkata – among those rare Indian states known more for its football, than its cricket.

Even for the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan – the stadium which saw a record attendance of 131,000 fans in a Kolkata Derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, back in 1997.

Thousands of fans marshalling through the streets of Salt Lake, with synchronised steps and spirit, was not an unprecedented sight. There have been a gazillion of such instances.

But, thousands of fans not wearing their favourite club’s jersey, and rather opting to have the national blue as their skin, and ‘Chhetri 11’ as their unambiguous, unequivocal identity? Perhaps, should a precedent be asked for, the city will be found wanting.
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The attendance of 58,921, in all fairness, might be less than what a Derby would generate. But multifarious factors made the uniqueness of the occasion evident.

For instance, echoing through the stadium were not the usual slogans from a club game, adorned with the choicest of words, but ‘Vande Mataram.’

Numerous posters, flags and tifos could be seen, but all shared a similar theme – the tri-colour.

Every message on every poster was made for, and directed, at Sunil. The majority followed the generic ‘Thank You’ and ‘Miss You’ archetypal.

One, written in Bengali, said “Sonar Sunil, Tomay Hrid Majhare Rakhbo (Sunil, our golden boy, we will keep you in our hearts). Football fans resorting to lines of Rabindranath Tagore as the source of showing affection, whilst painstakingly bidding adieu, was perhaps unprecedented.
Like his debut, Sunil Chhetri tried his best in his last match, but couldn't win. Today, though, it doesn't matter.

When Sunil Chhetri crossed paths with Rabindranath Tagore

(Photo: The Quint)

The fans who came to witness the occasion knew they were going to be a part of the twilight of Chettri’s remarkable legacy, and they wanted to provide the occasion with the treatment it merited. Yet, amid the excitement, a worry lingered – who would carry his legacy forward?

“I don’t see anyone of his calibre, or even the potential to reach his level,” said a fan.

“Unfortunately, I feel we don’t have a player currently who might do what Chhetri has been for us over the last 19 years,” another fan opined.

What transpired over the last ninety minutes corroborated the discourse. Fans had played their part, by cheering the players for throughout the match, but the display was not promising.

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India could only play out a goalless draw. Despite they had 15 attempts, only three of those shots were on target. From the perspective of the Indian team, this draw has considerably reduced their qualification chances for the 2026 FIFA World Cup third-round qualifiers.

From the Chhetri perspective, this draw meant his career would end exactly how it began, nearly two decades ago. Against Pakistan, facing a similarly passionate crowd at the Ayub National Stadium in Quetta, Chhetri gave his team the lead by scoring on his debut. However, the outcome did not go his way.

On being asked about how he would want fans of Indian football to remember him, Chhetri had said “As a guy who tried his best.”

And on 6 June, he did try his best. Head coach Igor Stimac praised his captain – now, former – for his work-rate. Despite being starved of service, he still contributed to the team’s cause by helping his defenders. Although the narrative from the players and coach prior to the match was that they would not allow the emotions of Chhetri’s departure to get the better of their footballing sharpness, Stimac could not deny admitting he was sad about how Chhetri’s last game concluded.

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And so, a draw. A few glimpses of promise, but all flashes in the pan. As has been the case in Indian football for a while now.

But try telling that to the fans in Kolkata after the full-time whistle was blown. Quadrisyllabic chants of ‘Su-nil-Chhe-tri’ were shouted by every voice.

Following a lap of honour, Chhetri could not contain his tears. And neither could the fans. An unparalleled icon had delivered his last lines, and curtains were about to be drawn.
Like his debut, Sunil Chhetri tried his best in his last match, but couldn't win. Today, though, it doesn't matter.

Otherwise professionally stoic, Sunil Chhetri could barely contain his emotions after the full-time whistle was blown.

(Photo: The Quint)

And then, they were drawn. Now, a void.   

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