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Indian captain and top goal scorer Sunil Chhetri announces retirement from international football

The 39-year-old will play his last game against Kuwait on June 6. The Padma Shri and Arjuna Awardee says in a video message that the "kid inside him never wants to stop", but "he has lived a dream", and that nothing comes close to playing for one's country

Published: May 16, 2024 02:26:52 PM IST
Updated: May 16, 2024 08:58:17 AM IST

Indian captain and top goal scorer Sunil Chhetri announces retirement from international footballSunil Chhetri has 94 international goals to his name. Image: KARIM JAAFAR / AFP

Renowned as the top goal scorer in India, Sunil Chhetri announced his retirement from international football on Thursday. With an impressive 94 goals to his name, the 39-year-old has had a remarkable career, making him an inspiration for hundreds of aspiring young football players across India.

His decision to retire from the international circuit comes after FIFA honoured him in 2022 with a documentary titled Captain Fantastic. Chhetri, who career spanned over two decades, conveyed his retirement through a heartfelt video message.

The captain of the national team revealed that the FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait on June 6 in Kolkata—the city where he made his debut for India in 2005—will be his last. The game assumes significance as India must secure a victory to enhance its chances of progressing to the World Cup Qualifiers Round 3.

"The recollection of the last 19 years is a combination of duty, pressure and immense joy," Chhetri said in his video message. "I never thought these are the games I would play for the country… good or bad, but now I did, but these last one-and-half-two months I did. And it was very strange. I was probably going towards the decision that this game is going to be my last," he added. "It was so strange, I started thinking about this game, that game, this coach, that coach, that team, that member, that ground, that away match, this good game, that bad game, all my individual performances, everything came, all the flashes came… so when I did decide that this is it, this is going to be my last game. I told my family first."

Also read: Sunil Chhetri: Lord of the 90 minutes

"There is one day that I will never forget and remember it quite often.. it’s the first time I played for my country, man, it was unbelievable," he continued. "But the day before, morning of the day, Sukhi sir, my first national team coach, came to me in the morning and he’s like, you’re going to start. I can’t tell you how I was feeling, man. I took my jersey, I sprayed some perfume on it, I have no idea why. So that day, everything that happened, once he told me, from breakfast to lunch and to the game and to my first goal on my debut, to conceding in the late 80th minute, that day is probably that I will never forget and it’s one of the best days of my national team journey." 

"And the moment I told myself first, that yes, this is the game that is going to be my last, is when I started recollecting everything," he added. "It took time because the kid inside me never wants to stop if given a chance to play for his country. I am really fortunate in my life… there have been so many amazing things that have happened to me. I practically lived a dream, but nothing comes close to playing for a country." 

"So, the kid kept fighting and probably even in the future will keep fighting inside. The person knows it, knew it that this is it, but it wasn't easy," the football icon said.

Also read: Sunil Chhetri: In the big league

Currently placed in second position in Group A with four points from four games, India will face Qatar in its last group stage match. Only the top two teams from the group will advance to the next round.

Chhetri's illustrious career saw him play for esteemed clubs such as Mohun Bagan, Sporting CP reserves in Portugal, and the Kansas City Wizards in the US.

Upon returning to India, he represented Bengaluru FC, Mumbai City FC, East Bengal and Dempo, achieving numerous titles, including the Super Cup, I-League and ISL championships. His leadership resulted in Bengaluru FC’s victory in the AFC Cup in 2016.

Chhetri's contributions were pivotal in India's triumphs in the SAFF Championship and Nehru Cup, with a notable highlight being the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup win that secured India's qualification for the AFC Asian Cup after 27 years.

Watch: There's no magic pill to success; the secret is doing the monotonous, boring stuff: Sunil Chhetri

Since his goal-scoring debut, Chhetri has consistently delivered exceptional performances, leaving a lasting impact on Indian football.

He is currently the third-highest active international goal scorer, trailing only Lionel Messi of Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, with 94 goals in 150 appearances for his country. This achievement now places him fourth all-time.

In 2005, Chhetri made his debut for India and scored his first goal against Pakistan. The footballer's remarkable seven goals in the 2011 SAFF Championship not only led India to victory but also solidified his position as the greatest goal scorer for the national team, surpassing Indian legend IM Vijayan's record of six goals in a single edition.

Chhetri has amassed 252 goals in 515 appearances for both club and country, boasting an impressive average of nearly a goal every two games.

The prominent forward's consistency on the football field has earned him widespread acclaim as a veteran player with star Indian cricketer Virat Kohli lavishing praise for his contributions in the footballing landscape.

Chhetri has been honoured with multiple prestigious awards for his outstanding achievements. Among these accolades are the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian honour, and the Arjuna Award, the nation's second-highest sports honour.