So long, No. 11: Sunil Chhetri looks back on his career

Sunil Chhetri has called a close on his career of 19 years. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation
Sunil Chhetri has called a close on his career of 19 years. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation

Summary

Evolving from a gifted young prodigy to a statesman of Indian football, Sunil Chhetri will go down as one of the country's greatest sportspersons

Goodbyes are never easy. Overwhelmed by the occasion, Sunil Chhetri is unable to hold back the tears. One of India’s greatest sporting sons is walking off the pitch, his captain’s armband on proud display, for the very last time. The fans at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium on 6 June, where India is hosting Kuwait in a Fifa World Cup qualifier, are roaring as Chhetri passes through an emotional guard of honour formed by his teammates and coaching staff. It’s time to pass the baton—and his famous No.11 shirt—on to the next generation, and call time on a remarkable, record-breaking career spanning 19 years. At 39, Sunil Chhetri has retired from international football.

Numbers tell only part of the story, but let’s quickly run through how patently ridiculous and extraordinary they are: 94 goals scored in 151 international appearances—that’s more than Diego Maradona and Pele; among currently active players, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have more—and a further 158 in club football. (In the list of Indian footballers: I.M. Vijayan racked up 32 while Bhaichung Bhutia finished his international career with 29.) Over 500 appearances in total—from his debut against Pakistan in 2005 to this, his final game. Trophies, individual awards, the prestigious Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award in 2021 (the first footballer to win it)—the many reminders of his sustained brilliance resting with pride on his mantelpiece. But Chhetri’s contribution to Indian football goes beyond mere statistics and awards. He has made a nation believe.

A few days after the Kuwait game, which ended in a goalless draw, denting India’s hopes for qualification, I speak with Chhetri on a Zoom call. He’s still getting used to this new chapter in his life. He has butterflies in his stomach as India is scheduled to play their final World Cup qualifier against a formidable Qatar team (they would go on to lose under controversial circumstances). For now, Chhetri is enjoying the break.

“At that moment, maybe I would feel: ‘Ah! I wish I could have done this, I could have done that.’ But thinking about it now that I have the time, when I look back, I had an amazing 19 years, man. There aren’t many players who’ve played 10 years for their country, leave aside 19," he says. It is astonishing; seldom do players last at the top level for such a long time. Rarer still as the charismatic talisman of a team. His longevity and consistency make him a bona-fide legend of the sport in India. He isn’t done with the game just yet—he will continue as skipper at his club Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) for at least another year.

Competitive streak

Chhetri is polite, humble and soft-spoken, a sense of self-assured stillness underlining his words. On the field, he transforms into a warrior: all heart and grace, passion, desire, aggression, a drive to fight and win it all.

“Chhetri, on his bad days, will still run for 90 minutes," says Joe Morrison, a prominent football presenter based in Dubai. “Chhetri will not give it up, he will not give up the ball, he will do his absolute best for 90 minutes," he says. “On his good days, he’ll bang in a couple of goals, of course he will. But it’s what you do on your bad days; that’s the difference."

Chhetri in action during the World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan in 2024. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation
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Chhetri in action during the World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan in 2024. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation

Right from his childhood, Chhetri has been competitive. In an official documentary, Captain Fantastic, made on him by Fifa in 2023, his father describes his desire to play football before he could even walk. His mother speaks of how difficult he could be when he wasn’t given the chance to play. By all accounts, he’s a famously sore loser. His family’s version of the board game Ludo is called “Khooni Ludo"—or “Bloody Ludo"—because of how intense it gets.

He grew up in Delhi in his formative years in a family with modest means. His father served in the Indian Army, and his mother had played football for Nepal. Right after school, Chhetri joined Kolkata’s famous Mohun Bagan in 2002—a baptism by fire, given the passionate and demanding fanbase the club boasts. His coach at the time was former India player Subrata Bhattacharjee; Chhetri met his wife Sonam, the coach’s daughter, there.

Chhetri made his debut in 2005 against Pakistan at Quetta, scoring a goal in a game that ultimately ended in a 1-1 draw (he cites this as one of his more memorable moments). By the time he broke into the national team, the great Bhaichung Bhutia was perhaps the most recognisable Indian footballer around. Another legend of the game, I.M. Vijayan, had just retired from the international scene, while players like Renedy Singh were established names. In fact, Singh, in the Fifa documentary, recalls an amusing incident from Chhetri’s early days. Singh would usually end up taking the free kicks and penalty kicks for the national team, under Bhutia’s captaincy. But as Chhetri grew into the team, he was eager to take on greater responsibilities on the pitch. Singh recounts the memory: “He would tell me, ‘Renedy bhai, you take the free kicks or the penalties—you can’t take both’... I was like, Yeh Delhi boy hai, yeh kuch bhi bol sakta hai (he’s from Delhi, you never know what he’ll say next)."

He played for a few clubs like East Bengal, JCT and Dempo in India for the next few years, before an opportunity to go abroad arose. In 2009, there was a trial at Coventry City in England’s Championship (the second division) that didn’t materialise into anything substantial. The same year, he signed with another English club in the Championship, Queens Park Rangers (QPR), but the transfer fell through as he was not given a work permit because of India’s low rank in the Fifa ratings. In 2010, he finally crossed international waters, becoming the first Indian to play Major League Soccer in the US and the third Indian player to play in a foreign league. He signed for the club Kansas City Wizards, but it didn’t work out, as he barely made it on to the pitch.

“At Kansas, if I can say the word, I screwed it up," says Chhetri. “I felt entitled. I went there, I scored some 13 goals in the first 10 friendly games (including one in a friendly against Manchester United). I thought I deserved to play. And when I wasn’t starting, I became very negative. I was too far away from home and I was stupid. I didn’t take care of my life, of food, everything." While he may have directed his frustrations and disappointments elsewhere in the past, now Chhetri speaks of failures and setbacks in a circumspect tone, with a self-examining maturity. He has the benefit of experience and hindsight.

Today, he stands tall as a kind of statesman of Indian football. He has also embraced the critical role of raising the profile of the sport here. As John Duerden, author and Asian football correspondent for The Guardian, Associated Press, and others, tells me over email: “He will go down as one of Asia’s legends, at least in the continent. He may not have played at the World Cup (…) but fans of Asian football will always know that this is a player who represented India for almost 20 years and scored lots and lots of goals. Not just that but he was a perfect ambassador for the game off the pitch too."

It took him a while to get there. “When I was younger," he says, “I had this arrogance, this myth that talent alone is enough. And eradicating that was pivotal for me." Chhetri credits two of his early coaches for India, Sukhwinder Singh and Bob Houghton, for coaching that tendency out of him. “They both taught me that… no, talent is not enough. If you want to be in the team, you’ve got to do the hard work too. Before that, I was just a young kid from Delhi. Without sounding arrogant, I think I was a little better—in terms of skill, touch, scoring—so I thought I’d always play."

A Sunil Chhetri mural in Kolkata. Photo courtesy Getty
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A Sunil Chhetri mural in Kolkata. Photo courtesy Getty

Chhetri tells me about a conversation with Houghton—who coached the Indian team between 2006-11—about Spain and Barcelona legend Andrés Iniesta, a man who pretty much won every major trophy on the European and world stage. “He was the best player for Spain and Barcelona," says Chhetri, “and even he doesn’t have the ball for more than two-and-a-half minutes! The remaining 87-and-a-half minutes he has to defend, to fight, to track back, to apply himself— that example was a very profound one."

Where it all clicked for him was during a training camp in the UAE in preparation for an upcoming tournament. The manager was going to select a total of four forwards. “Bhaichung bhai and Manjit (Singh) will travel because they’re the first starters," says Chhetri. “And Abhishek bhai (Yadav) was important to us because of his height." That left one slot open, and Chhetri was facing stiff competition from two of his teammates. He was given 45 minutes to impress the manager in a friendly against a club team. He scored twice in a 2-2 draw. “More importantly, I applied myself better. I went for the headers, I fought for the team, I came back and defended. Bob (Houghton) pulled me aside and was like: ‘When you can do this, why don’t you do it all the time? Why be a cheat?’ He told me this is the bare minimum I expect from you in every game." From that point, Chhetri never looked back.

Armando Colaco, Chhetri’s coach at Goan club Dempo in 2009 as well as for the national team in 2011—and a celebrated coach in Dempo’s history for his progressive style—says he was always an impeccable team man. “He’s had a very long journey which other players won’t have. Records are there to be broken, but it’s going to be quite difficult to replace him in the Indian team."

Inspiring support

In 2018, after a game at the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, in which he scored a hat-trick against Chinese Taipei, Chhetri posted a video on his X account. Only 2,569 fans had showed up at the stadium. In the video, Chhetri urged fans to come for the next game, to show up and support the Indian team. Abuse us, criticise us, but come. He adds, deadpan, that just being critical online is no fun. They should do it at the ground, in person.

This video travelled far and wide. Cricketer Virat Kohli posted a video urging fans to go. Luminaries of all stripes—from cricketer V.V.S. Laxman to comedian Vir Das—professed their support for Chhetri and Indian football. Morrison says this was a key moment in the development of Indian football. “I think, as Sunil’s star rose, it also coincided with the rise of social media. So, the timing was perfect. He was able to get the message across directly to the fans... it was from the heart. That’s why it had an impact." For the next game, against Kenya, the stadium was sold out. Thousands showed up. Chhetri (of course) scored twice in a 3-0 win.

This incident helped elevate Chhetri’s status to a wider, non-football audience. The diehards, the fanatics and ultras, had been there all along, Chhetri now became a voice: someone who was representing his sport to the outside world.

Commentator and presenter John Dykes, well known for his work with cricket and football in India, says over a text exchange how Chhetri “represented the new kind of icon that Indian football needed. He brought a thoroughly modern-day emphasis on fitness, discipline and the right kind of public persona to the sport." He draws a comparison to Virat Kohli, but adds that Chhetri “chose to build and maintain his career in a sport that didn’t always come with guaranteed riches and celebrity."

Chhetri, for his part, took on this new, more prominent profile with the respect and responsibility it demanded. We discuss his multicultural upbringing and fluency in several languages, and how it helped him navigate the role of the national captain. “It helps tremendously. Let’s say a young boy from Sikkim comes to the camp, and they’re overwhelmed by the atmosphere. If I go to them and talk to them in Nepali, it feels different. Whenever there’s a player from Bengal, I speak to him in Bengali. He feels the familiarity, he feels the love. These are small things, like understanding their food habits, not judging everyone by the same metric."

Sunil Chhetri training before the India-Kuwait World Cup qualifier in June. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation
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Sunil Chhetri training before the India-Kuwait World Cup qualifier in June. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation

His attention and care for those around him, has led to Chhetri becoming a cult hero in the stands too. Fans of his current club team, Bengaluru FC, adore him for the passion with which he plays. At first, as outlined in the Fifa documentary by members of West Block Blues, a devoted fan club named after a stand in the stadium, there was scepticism around Chhetri. He was the national football star, but watching him instantly buy into the ethos of the club meant that club’s fans soon embraced him as one of their own.

“As a captain," he say," I’ve made a lot of mistakes too. And that is probably the reason why I now get it right." He says when he became captain at 25, he had this desire to speak to everyone, to tell them what to do. “Then one day, I was thinking to myself, did I like the captain coming to me? The answer was a resounding no! Slowly I learnt that it’s not about when to speak, it’s about when not to speak." After that, he would only voice his concerns only when absolutely necessary. Rather, he chose to set an example to the players, becoming a role model. “Eating the right stuff, coming on time, things like picking up your residue after a game and putting it in the dustbin. It might sound trivial, but the boys see you and they follow. When you lecture somebody, no one likes it." (Chhetri often speaks of his desire to indulge, something his strict nutritional habits don’t allow—fittingly, this week, on Delhi’s Outer Ring Road, I spotted a Zomato billboard featuring him: “Grew up in Delhi, loved by India…like chole bhature.")

Last year, after Indian wrestlers spoke out in protest against alleged sexual harassment by then federation chief Brij Bhushan Singh, Chhetri tweeted in support. He expressed disappointment at the lack of consideration with which the wrestlers were being dragged around. “This isn’t the way to treat anyone. I really hope this whole situation is assessed the way it should be." These things often have a ripple effect. Someone of Chhetri’s stature speaking out enables others.

Further back, when the country was reeling under the shock of a devastating covid wave in April and May 2021 with oxygen shortages and scarcity of beds in hospitals, Chhetri announced, on 29 April, that he was handing over his X account to journalists and activists for a wider reach. He has 1.8 million followers at the time of writing. In a video message with the caption “Together, now more than ever", he professed his appreciation for the “real-life captains" working toward relief efforts. Chhetri urged people: “no matter who you are, help in whichever way possible."

Prajwal Bhat, an independent journalist, was the first person to take over the account. Bhat was reporting on the crisis in Bengaluru. “The demand was overwhelming and the systems were creaking. The IPL had not yet been cancelled and people were going about things as though it was business as usual. At least in the sports fraternity, I don’t remember anyone highlighting the fact that we’re having a crisis of this scale. (The X takeover) not only helped people access this information but also helped shift the conversation in terms of getting more people to speak up."

Chhetri credits his team for being on the same wavelength. “We haven’t moved mountains. But whatever we could do, we’ve tried. I have the power now. It’s one thing to have an idea, but then I have a voice people want to hear. Why not use it in a better way?"

Sporting stint

Sporting CP, or simply “Sporting", is a European football institution. The club, in Lisbon, Portugal, has won the Portuguese top flight title 20 times in its history since 1906. They have produced heavyweight international players of the likes of Luis Figo and Ronaldo. Chhetri, in 2012, signed a contract to play for the club. Coming from a country where football was and remains till date a developing sport, Chhetri would now be testing himself against the elite of European football.

His time in Portugal is pointed out by many as a period that defined the trajectory of the rest of his career. Chhetri didn’t spend a long time in Portugal; one year into a four-year contract, he returned to India, but he values the experience. “I was in one of the biggest clubs in Europe. What I understood when I went there was the level is much higher than what I was used to. In about two weeks, I was sent to the B team. And to my misfortune," he laughs, “the B team was better than the A team!" He takes the example of England and Tottenham defender Eric Dier, who was at Sporting playing for the B team at the time. In that year, Chhetri only made a handful of appearances, all of them from the bench. “That too 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there," he says. “It was a humongous jump. To put it into context, the level the ISL is in right now—and I’m being very honest—I don’t think any player is equipped to go to the top leagues. It has to be a gradual jump. Our league is getting better every year. Our boys should do well in the country, and then aim to go to a second division league elsewhere."

While the Kansas City stint is something he’s taken in his stride, there’s a lingering sense of “what if…" when Chhetri talks about Sporting. “The one small qualm I have is: If I were 17, 18, 19 years old, like the other B team boys, I would have happily stayed there. I’m not complaining. I was 27 at the time. So I couldn’t stay to learn more, I was getting restless at not playing. At 16 or 17, I would have happily given four years, even if I’m not playing. I’d have been a different player at 20." It’s an understandable decision—by all conventional wisdom, a footballer hits their peak by the time they reach 27 years of age. Chhetri was too important to the national team—and too gifted—to be spending his prime years on the bench.

Disciplined and consistent

On the pitch, Chhetri has scored every kind of goal imaginable. He’s thwacked in long-range bangers and tap-ins from inside the six-yard box. Penalties thumped, free kicks flying past flailing goalies. Delicate, mazy runs giving defenders twisted blood. In his 100th game, in Mumbai, the famous one where he asked fans to show up and be heard, Chhetri scored a penalty that he had won himself. Toward the end, with India comfortably ahead by two, Chhetri scored one of his most delicious goals. A quick counter-attack capped off by Chhetri making a clever run behind the Kenyan defence left him with just the keeper to beat. With a defender on his heels and the goalie fast approaching, Chhetri decided to impudently dink the ball over his head. It looped agonisingly over the keeper—caught in no man’s land—to nestle gently in the back of the net.

Technically, he’s perhaps one of the most gifted players India has produced. Comfortable shooting off both feet, a skilful dribbler with great balance, power and quick feet, a natural finisher, and—despite being not the tallest at 5ft, 7 inches—an excellent header of the ball.

Beyond his technique, a couple of things stand out about Chhetri’s game, defining him as a player. “He didn’t need much training or guidance," says Armando Colaco. “He had everything; he could pick up in a moment whatever you tell him. Just one signal. At Dempo, we had a peculiar style of keeping the ball and playing. You don’t run here and there; be calm, cool, run and shoot at precise moments. He adjusted to our style because he had that ear of picking it up, that was the beauty in him."

Sunil Chhetri in training. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation
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Sunil Chhetri in training. Photo courtesy All India Football Federation

John Duerden talks about Chhetri’s intelligence and composure. “To play so long means that you have to adapt, not just to individual coaches and their demands but also to the trends in football. The game has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and he has not just adapted but thrived."

More than that, however, is his hunger, commitment, and dedication. The gruelling demands of professional sport that the body has to endure make it practically impossible to sustain a long career beyond a point. Chhetri, though, managed to do it for almost two decades. Morrison says the young players at Bengaluru FC would be grateful to have someone like Chhetri (and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the national team goalkeeper) around.

“To be so disciplined and consistent in their nutrition, the way they train to the maximum every day, how they don’t step off the gas… Whether it’s the national team or at club level—Chhetri has shown a lot of youngsters that this is what’s required. Not only to get to the top but to stay there. I think that’ll be his legacy." Chhetri tells me there were days he just wanted to eat samosas, watch Netflix. “I’ll tell you one thing: why I was so hellbent on my routine is because on the days when you don’t want to do it, muscle memory will take over."

We speak of what lies ahead for Chhetri. In the short-term, there’s the club pre-season to look forward to, but he’s still figuring his path after that. “I don’t have anything concrete right now. My plan is to take a sabbatical for as long as it takes, and to find out exactly what I want to do. It’ll definitely be something with Indian football. But I want to take my time and see where I can add value."

Morrison feels Chhetri should not get involved in coaching and that he would be most useful in the upper echelons of football—at the Fifa headquarters in Switzerland or the Asian Football Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. “He knows, because he’s seen it at grass-roots level, what India requires. When it comes to global football and helping your country, everything comes from the top."

Despite the bitter disappointment of falling at yet another World Cup qualification hurdle, there remain persistent reasons for optimism for India. The game is getting increasing attention in the mainstream thanks to a vocal fanbase as well as the ISL improving the fan experience. But there have been several setbacks too. Currently, India’s global Fifa ranking is at 121 which, let’s be honest, is no great shakes. Chhetri points out that we’re not suddenly going to produce a Lionel Messi; there has to be a step-by-step improvement in India’s fortunes.

“First of all," he says, “understanding that we have made substantial gains in the last 10 years is important." Right now, he says, India is hovering around the 16-20th place in terms of quality in Asia. Chhetri feels that a realistic goal is to be among the continent’s 10 best teams. “More importantly, we need to identify talent at the right age. We keep saying we’re a nation of 1.5 billion people, but that only holds true when we are choosing (from that pool). We don’t tap the talent at the right age, we don’t give them the right education, the right learning."

Pointing out that India’s immense diversity is an asset, he says: “We have so much talent. Once we crack that code, very soon we will reach the top 10 of Asia, and we’ll be rubbing our shoulders with the very best." Chhetri speaks of Indian football’s future with a measured optimism; he understands the significant challenges. But the shoots of progress have been visible too. The game is growing in India—slowly, steadily—and there’s hope for a better tomorrow.

Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.

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