Updated May 18th, 2024 at 18:28 IST

Elite scoring company: Ronaldo, Messi and soon to retire Indian legend Sunil Chhetri

Indian soccer legend Sunil Chhetri is in elite company — of those still playing, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, with 128 and 106 respectively, have scored more international goals than Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri controls the ball during the Asian Cup Group B soccer match between Syria and India at Al Bayt Stadium | Image: AP
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Indian soccer legend Sunil Chhetri is in elite company — of those still playing, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, with 128 and 106 respectively, have scored more international goals than Chhetri.

But the 39-year-old Indian star, who has 94 goals, said this week that after 150 games for India, June’s World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata will be his last before retiring.

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“It was not that I was feeling tired,” Chhetri, who had a short spell in the United States with the MLS's Kansas City Wizards in 2010, said in a video posted on social media. “When the instinct came that this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot and eventually I came to this decision.”

“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.”

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Chhetri, who has won five domestic league championships, played his first game for India against Pakistan in 2005 and in the time since, his goals and leadership have helped the Blue Tigers become the undisputed dominant force in South Asia and a more visible presence at the continental level.

Prior to the striker’s debut, India last appeared at the Asian Cup in 1984 but is now a regular participant after qualifying for the 2011, 2019 and 2023 tournaments. Chhetri also helped the Indian national side make a rare appearance in the top 100 of FIFA’s rankings last July.

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A farewell win over Kuwait in qualification for the 2026 World Cup could see India progress to the final round for the first time since 1950.

The tributes came pouring in after Chhetri’s announcement in the video, which has had more than 2 million “likes.”

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“Somewhere inside, we probably were hoping that Sunil Chhetri would extend his career a bit longer,” All India Football Federation President Kalyan Chaubey said. “But with respect to the man, who has carried the nation’s dream for nearly two decades now, only he knows his body, the pain and joy he has endured. Words cannot define his greatness on the field.”

The recognition came not only from the soccer world.

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Cricketing superstar Virat Kohli said on social media that he was proud of his fellow sportsman. “... I would say that he felt like he is at peace with the decision,” Kohli said. “I have become really close with him over the years and wish him nothing but the best. He is a lovely, lovely guy.”

Chhetri said on social media on Friday that he messaged with Kohli before making his retirement decision.

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One of India’s leading Bollywood actors also paid tribute.

“A bittersweet moment for us, who have been touched and inspired by your greatness,” said Ranveer Singh. “Thank you for bringing us so much joy and glory, Captain.”

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After the game against Kuwait, attention will turn to which players come next for India.

Younger forwards in India such as Rahim Ali, Manvir Singh and Sivasakthi Narayanan have all been impressive, but following in Chhetri’s footsteps will not be easy.

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I.M. Vijayan, chairman of the AIFF Technical Committee, said: “It will take some time before we get another footballer like Sunil Chhetri in India.”

 

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Published May 18th, 2024 at 18:28 IST