Retiring as a Legend 

Although Indian football started promisingly in the pre-independence era, it entered a decline in the following decades. Factors like poor grassroots development and infrastructure, insufficient coaching programs, limited exposure to international contests and a shift of focus in other sports like cricket contributed to this downturn. Consequently, Indian football struggled to sustain its early momentum and fell behind the other nations globally. 

Despite India’s poor international performance, Sunit Chhetri, skipper of the Indian football team, third-highest goalscorer among all active players in the world after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and Indian football’s ‘GOAT’, was the hope of football fans in a cricket-loving nation. Recently, Sunil announced that he would hang up his boots after the FIFA World Cup qualifier match against Kuwait on June 6. Sunil has played 150 football games over the two decades and scored 94 goals. 

Indian football fans always hoped this day would never arrive, quietly fearing that the most talented footballer of his generation, after serving the nation for nearly two decades, would eventually have to retire. 

Sunil announced his retirement by posting an emotional video on social media. “When the instinct came this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot, and eventually, I came to this decision,” Sunil said in the video. “Will I be sad after this? Of course, the kid inside me never wants to stop if given a chance to play for his country. It’s time for our country to see the next No. 9.”

Football in the Blood 

Unlike other young players, Sunil initially pursued football to get admission into a prestigious educational institution based in the national capital. However, his love for the game ran deep, as his father, Kharga Singh, played for the Indian Army, and his mother, Sushila, represented Nepal’s national team. 

After a short tenure with City Club in Delhi, Sunil joined Mohun Bagan in 2002. Shortly after, he was selected for the U-20 India team and gradually progressed to the senior team, debuting in 2005 against Pakistan. After six years, English coach Bob Houghton named him skipper. Sunil Chhetri played a crucial role in leading India to victory in the AFC Challenge Cup 2008, the SAFF Championship in 2011 and 2015, the Nehru Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2012 and the Intercontinental Cup in 2017 and 2018. Sunil has scored at least one goal in his 1st, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 125th, and 150th matches.

The International Stage 

There has always been a burning debate among football fans and followers: If Sunil Chettri is such an amazing football talent, why is he not part of big leagues like the English Premier League, Laliga, and Premiere League? Well, there is a technical factor that contributes to this regard. Currently, India ranks 121 in the FIFA World ranking, while European premier leagues have criteria that they sign players from countries above 70th place in FIFA’s world ranking. Another reason is India’s poor football infrastructure. In European countries, kids usually start pursuing football at an average age of 4 years, while in India, this average age is 13-14 years, which means Europeans are ten years ahead when it comes to football. Sunil inspires Indian kids who want to be footballers, and franchise football competitions like the Indian Super League are gradually improving football standards in India. Soon, Indian participation in international football will increase. 

Retiring as a Legend 

The official administrative body of FIFA World took to the microblogging site X to pay tribute to Sunil Chettri. They posted Sunil’s graphic-generated photo along with Messi and Ronaldo and captioned it ‘Retiring as a Legend’. Many other celebrities and famous personalities wished him good after he announced his retirement. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the Goalkeeper of the Indian team, said – “It’s impossible to replace a legend like him in the dressing room”. The former captain of the Indian football team, Bhaichung Bhutia, regarded him as someone always willing to learn and do everything possible to excel. While Yuvraj Singh, a former Indian cricketer, saluted his legacy and called him a real legend of the game who took Indian football onto the global stage. 

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