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A Heartfelt Farewell to Indian Football Icon Sunil Chhetri

A sea of blue engulfed the iconic Salt Lake Stadium, where few seats remained unoccupied. The overwhelming presence of fans donning the No. 11 jersey reflected the deep admiration for India’s long-serving football captain, Sunil Chhetri, as he graced the pitch for one last time in international football.

Sunil Chhetri, who has been synonymous with Indian football for nearly two decades, evoked a mixture of pride and melancholy among the packed crowd. The sense of finality loomed large as the legendary captain, intrinsically woven into the fabric of Indian football, began severing his ties, leaving an evident vacuum with no apparent successor.

On this memorable night, India faced Kuwait in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier. The anticipation was palpable from the moment Chhetri stepped out, occupying the front seat of the team bus. He was greeted by a deluge of Blue Tigers fans, undeterred by a passing thunderstorm, who had gathered to witness this historic moment. The unwavering supporters waved the Tricolour with fervent cheers echoing through the night.

Every route seemingly led to the Salt Lake Stadium, as fans on bikes whistled and chanted “India, India,” all waving the national flag with pride. Chhetri, upon disembarking from the team bus, made his way to “Lozenge Mashi of Maidan,” Jamuna Das, an East Bengal aficionado reputed for selling a variety of lozenges at this storied venue. A heartfelt hug and a brief conversation followed, showcasing the personal connections Chhetri had fostered throughout his career.

As he moved towards the pitch, Chhetri was welcomed by a colossal poster reading “Sonar Sunil. Tomay Hrid Majhare Rakhbo” (Golden Sunil. Will keep you in my heart), directly opposite the dugout, with fans continuing to stream in. The stands were adorned with posters bearing tributes such as “India Till I Die” and “Thanks Captain. Leader. Legend,” embodying the sentiment of the gathered masses.

Standing as the last line of defense behind goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Chhetri was seen fervently singing the national anthem, exemplifying his deep sense of patriotism.

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Before the match commenced, dignitaries such as All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey and state sports minister Arup Bhattacharya paid their respects. In a heartfelt post on X (formerly Twitter), West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee welcomed Chhetri to a new chapter in his life. “Welcome Sunil Chhetri @chetrisunil11 to the beginning of a glorious new journey. You start a new phase of life today,” she wrote. “You have been a golden boy of Bengal, Captain of the Indian football team, a sports icon of Asia, a globally adored scorer, a giant achiever. I am sure that you will continue to play, add to our glory and achieve many more laurels for yourself and us.”

Banerjee continued, “It is not a day of farewell for you. It is a day to renew your pledge to uphold the glory of your family, Bengal and India further and further. Wish and pray for your future successes.”

During the qualifier, the 39-year-old veteran seemed as spirited as ever, sprinting past younger teammates, attempting to add to his record tally of 94 goals in his 151th appearance. The stadium reverberated with chants of “Sunil, Sunil” and “Vande Mataram,” creating an electrifying atmosphere. Chhetri’s prime opportunity in the first half came in the 11th minute when Liston Colaco delivered a precise low cross from the left wing. However, Hasan Alanezi’s timely sliding interception denied the intended goal.

Family, too, played a significant part in this emotional farewell. Chhetri’s wife Sonam, their nine-month-old son Dhruv, and his brother-in-law Saheb Bhattacharya were present in the stands, providing additional support in the absence of his father-in-law and former coach Subrata Bhattacharya.

The match concluded in a goalless draw, making Chhetri’s swan song bittersweet but memorable. Despite the packed stands, an underlying sense of emptiness lingered as the crowd witnessed the end of an era. Chhetri, after 19 glorious years intertwined with Indian football, had bid adieu, leaving an irreplaceable legacy in his wake.