Updated May 30th, 2024 at 23:46 IST

Chhangte 'ready' to step up as next No. 9 in post Chhetri era

Talented winger Lallianzuala Chhangte "would not mind" stepping up as the next number 9 of the Indian football team, after talismanic forward Sunil Chhetri's illustrious career comes to an end here on June 6.

Lallianzuala Chhangte | Image:AIFF
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Talented winger Lallianzuala Chhangte "would not mind" stepping up as the next number 9 of the Indian football team, after talismanic forward Sunil Chhetri's illustrious career comes to an end here on June 6.

Chhetri, who has been a pivotal figure of Indian football for 19 years, is set to make his final appearance in the World Cup qualifier against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium here on June 6.

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"Of course, I won't mind if the team wishes for me to play in the center," the 27-year-old Chhangte, who plays for Indian Super League final winning side Mumbai FC, said during a media interaction hereon Thursday.

"My height and attributes are suited for a proper number 9. Ultimately, it's God's decision, but I would not mind if the country needs me in that role.

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"Everyone is sad. But looking at all his achievements, we are happy for him as well. We will miss him a lot in the dressing room and what he has done for the country. I hope someone will take responsibility," added Chhangte, who was adjudged the AIFF Player-of-the-Year in 2023.

He further recalled his India debut and how Chhetri boosted his confidence.

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"It was very, very interesting. The first time I played for India, he called me and told me to be myself to enjoy the game. It's a privilege to play alonside him. I want to cherish every single training session with him." He was talking to the media on the sidelines of the Blue Tigers first practice session here ahead of the Kuwait match.

The Chhetri-led side arrived in the city on Wednesday, after their national camp in Bhubaneswar.

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The 39-year-old Chhetri had announced his retirement from international football after the Kuwait match in an emotional video posted on his social media handle earlier this month.

Having made his international debut against Pakistan in 2005, Chhetri went on to become the most-capped Indian footballer (150 matches). With 94 goals, he is the third-highest goal-scorer among active players with global superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi ahead of him.

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Chhangte emphasised the importance of teamwork over individual roles within the national squad.

"It's not about taking over from Chhetri bhai. Once it comes to the national team, it's about working together as a team. You can't rely on one player," Chhangte, who was the highest Indian goalscorer (10 goals 15 matches) in the last ISL, said.

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Reflecting on Chhetri's impending retirement, Chhangte expressed confidence in the team's collective strength.

"I strongly believe that even though Chhetri bhai won't be there in the future, we will work as a team." The Igor Stimac-coached side had earlier endured a 1-2 defeat to Afghanistan at home in March.

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Currently placed second in their group with four points from four matches, India are aiming to secure a top-two finish to qualify for Round 3 of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and earn a spot at the AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027.

'Time to honour Chhetri bhai' ================== The Mizoram forward urged the crowd to come out in huge numbers so that they can give Chhetri a fitting farewell.

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"It's time to honor Chhetri bhai, so we will give our best to win this game. This is a chance to create history by advancing to the next round, and that's our objective. We will do everything possible to achieve that and hopefully take all three points.

"The plus point is that we will have fans here, and we hope they will come in huge numbers. There is no guarantee that we will win this match but we will give our hearts out for the fans and we want to make this most memorable one for Chhetri bhai.

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"Kuwait are a good side but we have an advantage, we will have our fans. Most of the players are available and ready to go," he said. 

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Published May 30th, 2024 at 23:46 IST