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Friday, June 7, 2024

Indian soccer hollowed out: Departing Sunil Chhetri leaves big void

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19 years, 151 video games and 94 objectives later, Sunil Chhetri calls finish to his glittering worldwide profession

Indian football’s beating heart, Sunil Chhetri, has hung up his international boots. Tears welled up as he played his final game against Kuwait, leaving a gaping void in the team. His unwavering leadership, the fire in his eyes, and his infectious passion were a constant source of inspiration for fans and players alike. Indian football now faces a daunting task – carrying the torch forward without their beloved ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’.

The reliance on Chhetri, now 39, has been immense. His crucial role in India’s significant wins and qualifications over the past 19 years paints a vivid picture of his impact. India has qualified for the AFC Asian Cup five times, with Chhetri at the heart of three of those campaigns.

Sunil Chhetri at the heart of India’s successes

In 2008, Sunil Chhetri‘s hat-trick in the AFC Challenge Cup final against Tajikistan secured India’s spot in the 2011 Asian Cup, their first appearance since the 1980s. Despite his two goals in the 2011 tournament, India left without a single point. The 2014 campaign ended in a disappointing exit against the UAE in the second round, with Chhetri unable to find the net.

India’s back-to-back qualifications in 2019 and 2023 were again driven by Chhetri’s consistent scoring. He netted eight goals in the 2019 qualifiers and seven in the 2023 campaign. Meanwhile, Jeje Lalpekhlua, once seen as a potential heir, scored seven goals during the 2019 qualifiers but was hampered by injuries, leaving the mantle unclaimed.

Chhetri’s age started to catch up to him, yet during the 2023 qualifiers, he managed to score seven goals, ensuring India’s place in another Asian Cup. These 15 goals across two campaigns are the only true markers of progress for the national team. Without Chhetri, India’s performance remains average. The SAFF Cup and Nehru Cup victories also featured many of Chhetri’s goals, but the consistent qualifications for the Asian Cup stand as his most significant achievement. Without nearly a third of India’s goals since 2005, the progress in Indian football seems minimal.

Question of who after Sunil Chhetri persists

The upcoming challenge for the national team is enormous. The man whose goals symbolized progress is now stepping away, and finding a replacement will be a difficult and painful process. In his retirement video, Chhetri acknowledged this, saying, “Many national team players don’t play as No 9’s for their clubs. Now, they’ll need to step up. They’ll need time.”

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Since his debut in 2005, Chhetri has played alongside legends like Bhaichung Bhutia. When Bhutia retired in 2011, Chhetri took over, becoming the central force in India’s striking department. His professionalism and superior quality kept him unmatched.

19 years, 150 national appearances, and 94 goals – define an era of Indian football. The pressing question of who will succeed Chhetri remains, and given the current state of affairs, this question will persist for the foreseeable future.

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