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AL-RAYYAN: (FILES) India’s forward #11 Sunil Chhetri runs with the ball past Uzbekistan’s defender #26 Zafarmurod Abdurakhmatov during the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup Group B football match between India and Uzbekistan at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on January 18, 2024. India’s veteran football captain Sunil Chhetri announced his retirement from international competition on May 16. – AFP
AL-RAYYAN: (FILES) India’s forward #11 Sunil Chhetri runs with the ball past Uzbekistan’s defender #26 Zafarmurod Abdurakhmatov during the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup Group B football match between India and Uzbekistan at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on January 18, 2024. India’s veteran football captain Sunil Chhetri announced his retirement from international competition on May 16. – AFP

Indian record-breaker Chhetri to retire from international football

NEW DELHI: India captain Sunil Chhetri said Thursday he will retire from international football aged 39, ending a record-breaking career for his country spanning two decades. The attacker has hit 94 goals in 150 appearances for India, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the list of active international goal-scorers.

He is also India’s most-capped player. In a video message on social media platform X, Chhetri said the 2026 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata on June 6 will be his last international outing. “It’s not that I was feeling tired, not that I was feeling this or that,” he said.

“When the instinct came that this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot and eventually I came to this decision,” he said. India are second in qualifying Group A with four points, behind Qatar. “The game against Kuwait demands pressure, we need the three points to qualify for the next round. It’s hugely important for us,” the skipper said.

“But in a strange way, I don’t feel the pressure because these 15-20 days with the national team and the match against Kuwait is the last,” he added. Across club and country, Chhetri’s goal tally stands at 252 from 515 appearances, averaging almost a goal every two games.

He scored a penalty in India’s most recent outing, a 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat to Afghanistan in March. “The phases, the faces, the eras and battles - he’s been the one constant through it all,” Chhetri’s Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC said on X after the announcement. “He’s going to do it one last time, and we can never be grateful enough for the giant that walked amongst men.”

Football has struggled to find its feet among the 1.4 billion people of India, where the sport’s local following is dwarfed by the nation’s longstanding cricket obsession. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter once called India a “sleeping giant” of the sport. India are currently ranked 121, one spot below Lebanon which has a population of 5.5 million. Chhetri began his football journey in 2002. It was reported in 2009 that he had signed for English Championship side Queens Park Rangers, but was unable to take up the contract after being denied a work permit. 

He joined Kansas City Wizards in the United States in 2010 and in 2012 signed for Portugal’s Sporting CP, where he played for the reserves in the country’s second division. In 2022, FIFA honoured Chhetri with a documentary titled “Captain Fantastic”.

India coach Igor Stimac told AFP in January that Chhetri was welcome to continue his career for as long as he chose. “We are not putting any pressure on him whatsoever,” the Croatian said. “He is a proper role model for many Indian kids dreaming about becoming football players.” – AFP

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