A legend’s final bow: Sunil Chhetri wants to walk out on a high!

At the end of Sunil Chhetri’s penultimate training session of his 19-year international career for India, he quietly picked up a ball, delicately placed it on the penalty spot and signalled Vishal Kaith to take his place between the sticks. As he’s done at the end of every training session, he wanted to take a few attempts from 12 yards out before wrapping up for the day.

Chhetri shot four and scored all four of them. A slight grin appeared on his face after every shot. It wasn’t just the joy of a successful strike, but of living every last moment of his national team career to the fullest. When the captain announced his retirement, for everyone else, everything became about June 6. But for Chhetri, it was about every single training session leading up to the big day. Every drop of sweat, every stride in his run, every swing of his boot attempting to score every shot in every practice session.

But on June 6, the captain wants it to be all about India. His life has been all about football. After the lights of the Salt Lake Stadium dim on Thursday night, he won’t be part of the game for his country on the pitch, but will become another one of the billion-and-a-half fans of the national team. The 90 minutes before that could change Indian football completely. And perhaps fate had it that they would be Chhetri’s last 90 minutes too. But there’s nothing more the legend wants than bidding adieu to the sacred blue jersey, one which absorbed all of his sweat for nearly two decades, with all three points, which could potentially propel India to the third round. All he wishes for the post-Chhetri Indian team is to see them rub shoulders with Asia’s elite.

“I’ve been fighting a small battle every day. Don’t ask me how I feel (about retirement). Because I don’t want to address it. We really need to win tomorrow. Once we win this game, it gives us a great chance to go to the third round, which we have never been to. One thing we know for sure is that this is not going to be easy. And one thing we are very happy about is that we’re playing in Kolkata. We’ll have tremendous support,” said Chhetri.

The fan life will be different, but it’s something the 39-year-old has already visualised.

“I’ll be there wearing a nice suit, coming to watch all our boys play. That’s the dream. We win tomorrow, hopefully, and we’ll be almost qualified. It’s not 100% guaranteed. There are some permutations and combinations, but we’ll qualify. There will be 10 top games against the best in Asia, home and away. We’ll go and watch the games. I get free tickets so I can enjoy it. That’s the whole plan but again, this is only after the hard work that we put in tomorrow. Every day when I talk to the boys I keep telling them this. Hopefully, everything goes according to plan and I can go and watch them (in the third round). Just imagine playing against Japan and Australia in the third round. Just imagine what the whole euphoria will be and that is why the win is important. That’s why we want everyone together,” stressed Chhetri.

It would simply be the best farewell gift for the captain, and from the captain. The gift for billions in a nation for whom Indian football has only meant Sunil Chhetri over the last two decades. He made the country believe in their national team and inspired millions to kick a football. An icon of not just India, but global football. Only three players have scored more international goals in the history of the sport than him. The numbers speak for themselves. Some of those numbers will never be achieved again.

Thursday will be the 151st and final time he will don the India shirt. From the 20-year-old who sprayed perfume on his shirt before his debut, to the 39-year-old legendary figure, who will have thousands wearing the India jersey with his name on the back, this has been the journey of the nation’s greatest football player.

“I think it’s the right time. This is the right setup. It’s one of the biggest games that I, who has played for 19 years, is going to play. We win, we go to the third round where we’ve never been before. There couldn’t be a better game for me to call it my last. I’m at peace from the inside. I’ve given whatever I had.”

The match between India and Kuwait will be broadcast on Sports 18 1, Sports 18 1 HD, Sports 18 3, and streamed live on JioCinema, on June 6, 2024, at 19:00 IST.

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