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Sunil Chhetri retirement: When India captain beat Manchester United and played for same team as Cristiano Ronaldo


Sunil Chhetri has been a name synonymous with Indian football over the years. From becoming the highest-ever goalscorer for India to playing the most games for the national team, the striker has inspired generations to take up the sport in this part of the country.

In his prime, Chhetri set another record – becoming the first Indian to play in multiple continents, first with Kansas City Wizards (North America) and then with Sporting CP reserves (Europe).

He became a trailblazer for the next generations, which saw Gurpreet Singh Sandhu move to Croatia and Bijay Chhetri sign for a Brazilian side last year.

In 2008, Chhetri – then playing for East Bengal– reportedly attracted interest from English, Portuguese and American clubs.

Premier League side Leeds United was the biggest name on the list, followed by Championship team Coventry City while Estoril Praia – a Portuguese second-division sid – and Major League Soccer (MLS) sides, D. C. United and Los Angeles Galaxy, were some of the names that cropped up within a year.

Ultimately, he landed a trial at Coventry, which eventually did not lead to his signing.

“A lot was made of him coming over and I think he is going to go around a few clubs. He has had a few days with us but that is it,” Coventry manager Chris Coleman was quoted telling Itv.com.

“I understand he has a big reputation in India and he is a very nice young man but we won’t be following up our initial interest.”

A few months later, he came close to joining another club in England – Queens Park Rangers, who reportedly signed him but could not secure his services as he was denied a work permit because of India’s poor FIFA rankings.

While Chhetri returned back to India, signing for Dempo, interest from MLS arrived again, through Kansas City Wizards, now known as Sporting Kansas City which plays in the Western Conference, in 2010.

The move succeeded as Chhetri became the first Indian to play professionally in the USA.

“One thing we really like about Sunil is that he’s a crafty player. Technically he’s very sharp, and he’s a guy that has good attacking tendencies,” Peter Vermes, the Wizards’ head coach, told in a press conference.

“He will not play our first MLS match (against DC United on Saturday) but he is a bright prospect to make it to the playing team in future.”

Chhetri scored on his debut as a substitute in an exhibition against the University of Tulsa and netted a hat-trick in his next outing against the University of Evansville.

He made his first team debut, starting in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play-in game, which his side lost 1-2 to Colorado Rapids.

On July 25, 2010, he came off the bench in a friendly against Manchester United and had two shots on target in his 21 minutes of action as his side beat the Red Devils 2-1.

This was Chhetri’s peak in club football. India’s then-coach, Bon Houghton, called him back for national duty the next day, after which the MLS side released him.

Two years later, he had a brief stint with Portuguese stint with the reserve side of Sporting CP, a team Cristiano Ronaldo had once played for, in his formative years.

“We have reached out to Indian football, aiming at its development in a market estimated by FIFA, to be of more than 20 million players, and in this context, Sunil Chhetri, captain of the Indian Football Association, an idol in that country, who symbolises the dreams of all young players who aspire to play in Europe, will join the roster of the team “B”,” the club said in a statement.

However, the lack of regular match-time there saw him return to Indian soil – initially on loan and later, permanently – to ply his trade in the I-League (with Churchill Brothers and Bengaluru FC) and the Indian Super League (Mumbai City FC and Bengaluru FC).

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