Sunil Chhetri's determination to be among the best was rewarded by a stellar international career

It evoked comparisons with all-time greats like Messi and Ronaldo

FBL-WC-2026-QUALIFIER-IND-KUW Long whistle: Sunil Chhetri in action during his last game | AFP

Perhaps Sunil Chhetri always knew that the pursuit of football in India would never fetch him the stardom enjoyed by the country’s cricketers. Playing for the club or for the country, he had only limited triumphs to seek. So, Chhetri made it more about the journey than the destination. He chose to cherish the voyage over the port of call.

So, it is pointless to reflect on India’s disappointing performance against Kuwait on June 6 at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata―Chhetri’s last international match. The goalless draw was a second-round qualifier for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Had India won it, their chances to proceed to the third round, where top 18 Asian teams would battle for World Cup glory, would have been bolstered. But it was not to be. Under the overcast Kolkata sky, Chhetri failed to manufacture a miracle, but had clearly earned the right to leave the field with his head held high.

“He was [not tall], but could score goals with his head, by dribbling past players, by shooting from a distance. He had everything,” said Subrata Bhattacharya, Chhetri’s first senior coach, who is also his father-in-law. “After watching him play, I asked the Mohun Bagan management to sign him.” Thus began Chhetri’s 19-year-long professional journey in which he would represent India in 151 international matches and score 94 goals.

Although he was born in Secunderabad, Chhetri spent most of his childhood in Darjeeling. Football was in his blood as his father, K.B. Chhetri, had played for the Army team, and his mother, Sushila, once represented Nepal.

It was not easy for Chhetri in his initial days, despite joining Mohun Bagan in 2002. He quickly realised the brutal truth about the Kolkata maidan: you get what you earn. Though there were flashes of brilliance, his journey with the Mariners never truly soared in the first three seasons. “I wanted him to stay with Mohun Bagan because I knew about his ability. But I was not the owner of the club,” said Bhattacharya. Chhetri quit and moved to JCT in 2005. He also made his senior international debut that year.

Chhetri returned to Kolkata in 2008 with East Bengal, Mohun Bagan’s arch rivals. He always harboured the dream of becoming the first Indian to play regularly in Europe. In 2009, he attended selection trials at England’s Coventry City and Scotland’s Celtic, but failed to make the cut. He finally got a contract with English club Queens Park Rangers; but because of India’s subpar FIFA ranking, he was denied a work permit. He also tried his luck with US Major League Soccer side Kansas City Wizards and even played a friendly against Manchester United before leaving the club for unknown reasons. His next foreign stint was with Portuguese top-tier team Sporting Lisbon, but that, too, did not last. He later claimed that “the pace was too fast”.

Bhattacharya told THE WEEK that the Indian system was unable to produce players at par with European standards. “Chhetri was great, but he was a product of Indian football, after all. He didn’t fail. Indian football failed to make him a player of European standards,” he said.

But Chhetri’s foreign experience helped him raise the level of his game, as he focused more on his fitness and diet. “Chhetri’s story is one of sacrifice and dedication. He gave up all his desires,” said Rahim Nabi, former India footballer and Chhetri’s colleague in the national team and in East Bengal. “He came from having biryani a day before his international debut to working with personal trainers and nutritionists. He follows a strict vegetarian diet now. These are the reasons why he went above others.”

Aided by his brilliance, India qualified for the AFC Asian Cup in 2011, after a gap of 26 years. He helped India play the continental championship in 2019 and 2024 as well. With Chhetri, India won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, the South Asian Football Federation Cup four times, the Nehru Cup thrice and the Intercontinental Cup twice.

In club football, Chhetri won the I-League four times, once each with Dempo and Churchill Brothers and twice with Bengaluru FC. He won the Indian Super League with Bengaluru in 2017-18. Chhetri also won the Durand Cup and the Federation Cup, and was a seven-time recipient of the All India Football Federation’s player of the year award.

Nabi said Chhetri’s departure from Kolkata to the more professional set up of the Bengaluru FC helped him. “He became the legend that he is in Bengaluru. Kolkata clubs put unnecessary pressure and mostly rely on foreign players in forward positions. Bengaluru trusted and invested in him and he paid them back,” he said.

It was with Bengaluru that Chhetri reignited his aspiration for glory in the grandest of international stages. He valiantly led his team to the final of the AFC Cup in 2016, Asia’s second-tier continental club competition, but failed to win the cup.

Chhetri’s unwavering dedication to be counted as one of the best was rewarded by a hugely successful international career, evoking comparisons with all-time greats like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. He is mentioned alongside them solely for his individual brilliance, for the number of goals he scored. Till June 6, he was the third highest active international goal scorer, after Ronaldo and Messi.

Indian sporting legends such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, P.V. Sindhu and Neeraj Chopra greeted Chhetri on his retirement. Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric, who plays for Spanish club Real Madrid and captains the Croatian national team, sent him a personal message.

As Chhetri finished his final international game, nearly 60,000 spectators in Salt Lake started chanting his name. He did a lap of honour around the stadium, acknowledging the spontaneous outpouring of love from his fans, and tears welled up in his eyes. His family, including his wife, Sonam, too, could not hold back tears. The AIFF, the government of West Bengal, the Army and his former teammates paid their tributes. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee gifted him a gold chain that she designed herself.

At the end of it, Chhetri faced the crowd one last time. His voice trembled as he tried to console them. “These 19 years would not have been possible without each and everyone of you,” he said. “Shobai bhalo thakben, shobai khushi thakben (everyone please take care, please be happy).”