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Chhetri, Tendulkar and the roulette of fairytale farewells

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On Thursday evening, over a cup of tea, a curious hotel manager walked up to a waiting customer, and greeted him before asking, “If you don’t mind… If I ask you to come up with two topics of interest to discuss, what would they be?”

The man at the table was quick to reply “Sunil Chhetri’s retirement.” He then asked, “Where is the hullabaloo about Chhetri’s [India] retirement? If [Sachin] Tendulkar was playing his last game would there be such less excitement?”

Some parallels could be drawn between Tendulkar and Chhetri’s careers. Both are celebrated stars of their respective sports, who have played at the highest level for over two decades. But that’s where the comparison ends.

Tendulkar was a larger-than-life personality who commanded the imagination of over a billion people whenever he had a bat in hand. There have been many times Chhetri has scaled every blade of grass, putting in a real shift for the national team, and was still met with apathy from close to a billion people.

RELATED: Familiar script befalls India and Chhetri’s farewell in goalless draw vs Kuwait

But for his final game, he didn’t have to put out an impassioned plea, requesting people to come in numbers. The match was at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, for an all-important World Cup qualifier. In the build-up to the game, there was a buzz about the strong 60,000+ crowd who would make it a memorable night for Indian football.

If the team got the win on the board, they would have sung into the night with Chhetri parading around the Salt Lake Stadium. His warm-up walkout was accompanied by the army band along with a thunderous roar of “Chhetri! Chhetri!”

After the Indian national anthem, banners were unfurled all around the stands. One read “Thank you, Sunil Chhetri.” The one next to it said “GOAT of Indian football.” A bigger banner to its left had bright orange words which read: Sonar [Golden] Sunil. But the two tifos in the north stand summed up Chhetri perfectly. It depicted Chhetri carrying Indian football on the global map on his back.

Fans put up a large banner of India’s captain Sunil Chhetri during his farewell match, a FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier football match between India and Kuwait, at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan.

Fans put up a large banner of India’s captain Sunil Chhetri during his farewell match, a FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier football match between India and Kuwait, at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan.
| Photo Credit:
PTI

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Fans put up a large banner of India’s captain Sunil Chhetri during his farewell match, a FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifier football match between India and Kuwait, at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan.
| Photo Credit:
PTI

When Tendulkar played in what was his final World Cup, the entire cricket team and the nation rallied behind the idea of getting him to his desired World Cup win in 2011. And they got it done at Tendulkar’s home, the Wankhede. He was then draped in an India flag and carried around on the shoulders of Virat Kohli and Yusuf Pathan.

“He [Tendulkar] has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders,” said a young Kohli. Two years later, Tendulkar also got his ideal send-off when he eventually pulled down the curtains, yet again, in Mumbai. 

But on Thursday night, there was no one to share the burden of expectation to stick to the expectant script. While all the Indian players spoke of wanting to give Chhetri the perfect send-off, when the moment came, many seemed saddled by the occasion.

Heavy touches, mistimed passes, and lack of clarity with the ball cost India the fast start that it usually craves. Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Liston Colaco, who all have had multiple trysts with high-pressure games at this venue, weren’t able to bring out their best.

“No, I wouldn’t say so,” disagreed Igor Stimac, with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, looking shattered next to him, shaking his head to indicate the same. Gurpreet, who has played with Chhetri since 2011, did his part, keeping his side in the game with two brilliant saves. 

Chhetri didn’t want this game to be about himself and it didn’t matter if he didn’t get on the scoresheet. But as any striker would do, he would have dreamt of having that moment. For the final time.

Indian Football team captain Sunil Chhetri thanks the crowd after the FIFA World Cup qualifier match against Kuwait at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan.

Indian Football team captain Sunil Chhetri thanks the crowd after the FIFA World Cup qualifier match against Kuwait at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan.
| Photo Credit:
MOORTHY RV/ The Hindu

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Indian Football team captain Sunil Chhetri thanks the crowd after the FIFA World Cup qualifier match against Kuwait at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan.
| Photo Credit:
MOORTHY RV/ The Hindu

The ball played over the top to find his well-timed run, which would set him through on goal and *thud*!

Except, it wasn’t him, but Rahim Ali, who was on the end of the chance, which he missed. For Rahim, that could have been the beginning of his making. A goal on Chhetri’s last day in an India shirt would have put a temporary rest to the ‘Who after Chhetri?’ question, but it wasn’t to be.

On a personal level, it was a game to forget for Chhetri. He was peripheral in the first forty-five minutes as his teammates failed to release the ball early to meet his runs and he was largely left to chase shadows. He played as a striker, as a no. 10, and as a striker again, but it seemed one of those days where no teammates could find him with the ball. 

It’s unfortunate that Chhetri’s last stretch with the national team also coincides with the team’s unwanted record of 645 minutes without a goal from open play. 

When his teammates collapsed around him, Chhetri stood still near the centre circle, with his head bowed down. In the end, there was no one to take India through to a win nor carry Chhetri on their shoulders.

The veteran of 151 caps and 94 international goals, one of the greatest footballers this country has ever produced, made a teary lap of honour around the stadium to the applause from the faithful. Chhetri’s mother, Sushila, looked on in tears next to his father, Kharga. There were tears everywhere.

The guard of honour hit home the hardest. His teammates lined up on each side from the pitch and towards the dressing room. As Chhetri stood at the start of the line, he sobbed inconsolably with his hands covering his face, knowing full well he would never again be able to pull on an India shirt again, before walking through.

Til the very end, Chhetri was all heart and his farewell speech was no different. “For everyone who came for the game, everyone who has watched me for 19 years, thank you. These 19 years would not have been possible without you all and I genuinely mean it. I want to speak from my heart,  shobai bhalo thakben, khushi thakben (everyone stay well, everyone stay happy),” India’s  Sonar Sunil signed off.



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