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Indian football: Sunil Chhetri is on everyone’s lips but on captain’s mind, the crucial match against Kuwait

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Everyone is talking about Sunil Chhetri.

Lallianzuala Chhangte, the speedy winger, ‘hopes and believes it would be me assisting Chhetri bhai’. Sahal Abdul Samad, the stylish midfielder, vowed to ‘fight for Sunil bhai.’ Defender Subhashish Bose wants the team to win, which would be ‘a farewell gift for Sunil bhai.’

And coach Igor Stimac couldn’t hide his emotions, saying how ‘sad’ he was that his – rather, Indian football’s Man Friday – will retire from international football after the 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup qualifier against Kuwait here on Thursday.

Everyone’s talking about Chhetri. But the 39-year-old wants everyone to talk – and focus – about the match, which is crucial to India’s progression hopes and can make or break the campaign.

A smile while entering a packed room for a media conference on the match-eve was a rare occasion Chhetri showed emotions on Wednesday. For the rest of the time, he resembled a dormant volcano, keeping his feelings from bubbling up and urging everyone to focus on the all-important tie rather than his impending swansong.

Festive offer

“I am trying really hard to not think about this game like this. It’s not about me and my last game. It’s about us and Kuwait. Inside, I am fighting this small battle. Please don’t make it worse by asking me again and again how I am feeling. I don’t want to address it. We really need to win this game. This is not going to be easy, but we are ready. We will have tremendous support here in Kolkata,” Chhetri said.

Indeed, Chhetri has a point. India must not risk getting overwhelmed by emotions in a match where they have to be cold-blooded to eke out a favourable result.

Sunil Chhetri practice ahead of India vs Kuwait It’s almost poetic that Chhetri plays his final match in a city that had shaped his career since his days as a Mohun Bagan player back in 2002-05 and then again in 2011-12. (AIFF)

India are in the second position in Group A with 4 points. Asian champions Qatar top the table with 12 points, Afghanistan are third with four points but an inferior goal difference than India and Kuwait are at the bottom with three points. The top two teams of each group will be making their way into the third round of the qualifiers as well as securing direct qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2027 in Saudi Arabia

A win would put India in a comfortable position to advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. It’ll be a historic feat and although they aren’t expected to make it to the World Cup, being among Asia’s elite in the final round would mean better opponents, more matches and greater high-level exposure.

The only time Chhetri delved into the future, was when he was asked if he would reconsider his decision to retire. “If we win tomorrow, we almost qualify. Five top games home and away, I am going to wear nice suits and watch the match wherever the team travels,” he said. When asked again, he replied: “No sir, suits are made and I am going to watch the boys play. I have thought about it a lot. I had a great ride all these 19 years. I will go as a fan and support the team wherever the team goes.”

Lucky venue

It’s almost poetic that Chhetri plays his final match in a city that had shaped his career since his days as a Mohun Bagan player back in 2002-05 and then again in 2011-12. He has even played for Bagan’s arch-rivals East Bengal for a year in between. The venue is a lucky one as well with the Indian team not having lost in the Salt Lake Stadium since August 2006.

The opponents on the night, Kuwait, are also the last team India has defeated in an international match with a 1-0 win in the group league opener back in November. Since then, India have had a terrible few months, losing to Qatar 0-3, getting eliminated from the Asian Cup after defeats to Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria, where India failed to find the net even once and then the draw and the humiliating 1-2 loss against Afghanistan in World Cup qualifiers, the latter coming in Guwahati.

With Kuwait being the team India are facing on such a momentous occasion, fate has brought everything to a full circle. But you can’t help but look beyond the gaping hole that Chhetri will leave behind after a career spanning 19 years, which saw the player even donning the colours of Sporting Lisbon B as well as Kansas City Wizards.

India will eventually have to answer the question of who the new number 9 will be for the country moving forward but on Thursday, even if Chhetri wants the narrative to be about India vs Kuwait, the bigger picture will revolve around the legacy that he leaves behind.

Stimac and Chhetri tried to detach themselves from the emotions, urging all to focus on the match instead. A packed crowd at Salt Lake Stadium, waiting to give a fitting farewell, will probably disagree.





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