Big brother, wonderful human being, the GOAT: Chhetri an inspiration to teammates!

As the Indian senior men’s team gathered in the Kalinga Stadium gym for their session on Thursday morning, there was a hush in the room. Less than an hour ago, Sunil Chhetri posted a heart-touching 10-minute video announcing his retirement from national colours. Head coach Igor Stimac stood beside him, gathered everyone in a semi-circle, and gave a brief speech for the captain and the boys. This was the start of Sunil Chhetri’s last-ever national team camp — 19 years after his first.

“He knows best how he feels and when it’s the appropriate time to do things. I just wish we all do everything to make 6th June very memorable for him and all Indian football fans,” Stimac said.

“He became a legend while still playing and that’s something only a few can do. He’s an inspiration to everyone, absolutely committed to the Indian jersey which is something these youngsters need to follow. Playing for the country with passion and love, and as he said with ‘intense joy’, Stimac added.

Having taken over the Indian national team in May 2019, the Croatian has completed five years together with Chhetri. It’s not just a typical player-coach relationship, but one that extends way beyond the football pitch too. You get the sense of it with the way Stimac speaks about him and addresses him.

“I had the pleasure of coaching such a wonderful human being and getting to know his beautiful family,” he said. “We were more than simply a coach and a player and I am very proud of the relationship we have amongst us and the group. I am very confident that whatever he decides to do after football will have an immense impact on society in a very positive way. He was born to become a GOAT.”

Lifting weights right next to Chhetri in the gymnasium was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. For both club and country, the goalkeeper has spent the most time together on the pitch with Chhetri in his career. They might play on opposite ends of the pitch, and on the very rarest of occasions exchange passes during a match, the chemistry has always been there.

“I am fortunate if I can claim that I spent the most amount of time in his international footballing career alongside him. I was lucky I got a senior, a big brother and a mentor like him through whom I learnt so much not just about football but life in general,” said Gurpreet.

Besides being a teammate and a brother, he is also a fan of the legend after all. When he first learned about Chhetri’s decision, he didn’t want to believe it.

“I was a little mad about why he’s doing this, it’s still too early,” revealed Gurpreet. “Maybe it’s my inner fear of not seeing him around the team when he leaves. I still think he can go on and on. But I support him no matter what.”

The journey will end on June 6, but there are plenty of memories to cherish. It’s tough for Gurpreet to single out, but he tried. “I think every single goal that I have seen him score while I was on the pitch has been the most memorable moment of my playing time with him. The goal against Kyrgyzstan at the Kanteerava (Asian Cup Qualifiers in 2017), the chip against Kenya (Intercontinental Cup in 2018) and countless others. I think the banter that we have when he’s practising finishing against the goalkeepers during training is something I will miss a lot,” Gurpreet shared.

Memories will always stay, and perhaps the most special memory is yet to come in three weeks’ time.

“It’s not difficult, it’s impossible to replace a legend like him in the dressing room, but we have to face the reality. I also hope Sunil bhai finds the mental and physical peace he deserves after serving the nation for almost two decades.

“My message to him would be, ‘Bhai abhi bhi waqt hai, video delete kar do aur bol do, just joking. I am still around’. (Brother, there’s still time. Delete the video and say that I was joking.),” laughed Gurpreet.

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