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Sunil Chhetri : Thank You, and Goodbye.

 

There’s something so comforting about a good striker. Defenders and midfielders can be confusing because of the vagaries of the systems that they are employed within, but any fan can spot a good striker. But a good striker will always fight for the ball, press hard, and stick the ball in the back of the net. You could be watching the most random match from the middle of nowhere, but a good striker will always have a comforting familiarity. For most, that’s who Sunil Chhetri was for India. In the midst of constant footballing chaos, Chhetri was comfort. In teams full of uncertainty, Chhetri was certain. And in a national team that made your heart sink, your tears fall, and your hopes ebb, Chettri made you proud. 


It's quite difficult to explain just how ridiculous 94 international goals is. It’s one of those things you just…don’t do. It’s just a goofily good record to have. Only three players have ever scored more. Those three players have played for clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich, won Ballon d’Ors, and competed in some of Europe’s top leagues. Crucially, the trio had long runs in 5 World Cups, 6 Copa Americas, 5 European Championships, and 3 AFC Asian Cups. Right below them is a boy from Secunderabad with 3 AFC Asian Cup group-stage exits to his name. And yet as he retires, he leaves with the same goals to games ratio as Cristiano Ronaldo and 12 fewer international goals than Lionel Messi in 29 fewer games. His goalscoring record is quite simply unheard of. It just doesn’t happen. It also, and it must be said, quite literally does not matter who the goals came against. Yes, India played significantly worse international opposition than the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, who did the same damage as Chhetri against stronger defenses, in front of bigger crowds, and for much more money. But those that reply to the statistics on international goals scored with that argument fail to understand the reason behind Chhetri’s brilliance. The Indian captain’s presence on the leaderboard doesn’t indicate that he’s at the same sporting level as his colleagues. He’s not Messi – but that doesn’t matter. Because he made us feel the same way Messi made Argentinians feel. Detractors of Chhetri’s international record fail to understand that fundamental rule about sportspeople – it literally does not matter how good they are – it just matters how much they made the people that watched them feel.


And boy did Chhetri do that. When India won the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai in 2018, in front of a packed Andheri Sports Complex – it wasn’t until the camera panned to an emotional Sunil Chhetri that I felt the impact of that win. On paper, it didn’t mean much – winning a tournament of 4 teams, of which India was the highest ranked, in front of full-house home stadiums. But it was Chhetri’s emotional video plea to Indians at the beginning of the tournament to support their team that drove the fanfare – that gave us the absolutely beautiful scene of an Indian team doing the viking clap with stadium full of adoring fans, most of whom were supporting the national team for the first time. There was a sense that day that the tournament win meant something more. And Sunil Chhetri made it mean more.


In the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, when India needed a draw in their final group fixture against Bahrain to make it to the knockout stages, it was Chhetri leading the press from the front, organising the defense on set pieces, and somehow constantly providing an outlet in the Bahraini half of the pitch. A stoppage time penalty for Bahrain broke Indian hearts that night. Honestly speaking, India deserved to lose that game by 2 or 3 goals, and were thoroughly outclassed by their opponents. One player wasn’t, and so the loss meant more. 


In Chhetri, India found a sporting hero unlike any other. Kohli and Bumrah play for the world’s best Cricket team.  Saina, Sania, Sindhu, and Vishy were all, at different times, the best in the world at their craft. Sachin, like Chhetri,  was better than everyone on his team – but he was better than everyone else too. Chhetri’s stardom, unlike his compatriots in the Indian sports Hall of Fame, was marked with a vulnerable sense of humanity. Chhetri often, very often in fact, struggled to beat defenders, was dominated aerially by big Centre-Backs, and had tame shots saved by World-Class goalkeepers. Unlike the other greats, he was very rarely the objective best player on the pitch when he played international games. And yet, at the end of his international career, you cannot but describe him in the same breath as you would the superstars of Indian sport. The others were great because of their superhuman ability, but Chhetri was great in spite of his human limits.


The gap that his departure will leave for India is understandably a massive one, and not just because they have 94 international goals to replace. The center-forward position is one where India is distinctly lacking, a fact which is evident when looking at how ISL clubs have looked to recruit. In the 2023/24 season, Bengaluru (Chhetri’s team) and Hyderabad FC (who lost a majority of their foreign players over financial issues) regularly were starting Indian center-forwards. Instead, teams have tended to prioritize signing foreign strikers (often on a hefty salary) when building their teams.  Only 3 of the top 20 goal scorers in the ISL were Indian, and the few players who have shown potential as strikers like Manvir Singh and Vikram Partap Singh tended to play off the wing instead. Ishan Pandita, who until recently was included in India squads as a backup striker, played 426 minutes across 17 appearances for Kerala Blasters, and did not score once. The boots Chhetri leaves behind are not small ones to fill.

 

When India next take to the field, they will have a new captain, perhaps a captain who can project his voice louder than Sunil Chhetri. When a cross comes into the box, a new center-forward will attack in, perhaps someone taller and stronger than Sunil Chhetri. If they win a penalty, there will be a new penalty taker, perhaps one who can strike the ball harder and truer into the corner than Sunil Chhetri. But replacing Sunil Chhetri isn’t that easy, you can’t Moneyball it, replace him in the aggregate. Sunil Chhetri has always been greater than the sum of his parts. You can’t score 94 international goals without being so. Only time will tell how India attempts to fill the vacuum he leaves behind, but for now, all there is to say is So Long, Farewell, to the Captain, Leader, Legend.

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