Record-breaking India captain Sunil Chhetri to quit international football

India’s record goal scorer and most capped player says it’s time for the country to see ‘the next number nine’ in an emotional video announcing his retirement.

India's Sunil Chhetri reacts
Sunil Chhetri played 150 international matches and scored 94 goals for India [File: Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters]

India captain Sunil Chhetri says he will retire from international football, ending a record-breaking career for his country spanning two decades.

Chhetri, the country’s most prolific scorer, will retire after the World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on June 6, the 39-year-old announced on Thursday.

Chhetri has been the face of Indian football for nearly a decade-and-a-half and his 94 international goals make him the third-highest active international goal scorer after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

“It was not that I was feeling tired,” Chhetri said in a video he posted on social media.

“When the instinct came this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot and eventually I came to this decision.

“Will I be sad after this? Of course … the kid inside me never wants to stop if given a chance to play for his country.”

“It’s time for our country to see the next number nine.”

India play Kuwait while being 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.

He scored a penalty in India’s most recent outing, a 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat to Afghanistan in March.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) heaped praises on the retiring captain in response to his announcement on social media.

“Your legacy on and off-the-field will always be remembered,” AIFF said in a post on X.

“Thank you @chetrisunil11 for your leadership, dedication and commitment to Indian football.”

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.

‘The giant that walked amongst men’

Chhetri is India’s most-capped player having played 150 international matches since his debut against Pakistan in 2005.

Across club and country, his goal tally stands at 252 from 515 appearances, averaging almost a goal every two games.

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 said 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.

Chhetri’s Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC termed him a role model for the younger generation.

“He is a proper role model for many Indian kids dreaming about becoming football players.”

“The phases, the faces, the eras and battles – he’s been the one constant through it all,” 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.”

Source: News Agencies