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India's forward Sunil Chhetri reacts during the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup Group B football match against Syria at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha, on January 23. Image Credit: AFP

New Delhi: India captain Sunil Chhetri said on Thursday he will retire from international football aged 39, ending a record-breaking career for his country spanning two decades.

The attacker has hit 94 goals in 150 appearances for India, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the list of active international goal-scorers.

He is also India’s most-capped player.

In a video message on social media platform X, Chhetri said the 2026 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata on June 6 will be his last international outing.

“It’s not that I was feeling tired, not that I was feeling this or that,” he said.

“When the instinct came that this should be my last game, I thought about it a lot (and) eventually I came to this decision,” he said.

India are 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.

Decorated career

The story of Chhetri started 19 years ago in the national capital when he represented City Club Delhi from 2001-02.

In his decorated career, India’s former ace striker Bhaichung Bhutia passed the baton to him and chose Chhetri to lead the national football team.

Chhetri featured at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and was first named the national team captain at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers and led India to yet another Nehru Cup trophy in 2012.

He won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 with India. He helped India establish itself as a dominant force in South Asian football with SAFF Championship title wins in 2011, 2015, 2021 and 2023.

Chhetri has starred and won three Nehru Cup titles with India in 2007, 2009 and 2012. He has been a part of two Indian teams which won the Intercontinental Cup in 2018 and 2023. Chhetri also led India to the Tri-Nations Cup in 2023.

The Indian star has won the prestigious All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year title a total of seven times in 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons. He has also won the FPAI Indian Player of the Year award in 2009, 2018 and 2019.

He also won two big Government of India sporting honours, the Arjuna Award in 2011 and the Khel Ratna Award, the country’s biggest sporting honour in 2021.

It was under his leadership India entered the top 100 rankings for the first time in 2023 since 2018.

After taking the initial steps in his career, Chhetri made his debut as a professional for Mohun Bagan in 2002. He stayed with one of the most decorated clubs in the history of Indian football till 2005, netting eight goals in 18 matches.

He travelled across India and featured for JCT (2005-08), East Bengal (2008-09), Dempo (2009-10), Chirag United (2011), Mohun Bagan (2011-12), Churchill Brothers (2013 on loan) and Bengaluru (2013-15, 2016-present).

His career wasn’t just limited to Indian soil, he boarded the plane to have stints abroad with USA’s Major League Soccer club Kansas City Wizards (2010) and Portugal club Sporting CP (2012-13). These stints refined his game and turned him into a more well-rounded striker.

Overall, the captain fantastic has scored 158 goals in 365 club appearances throughout his two-decade career. He made his senior-level debut for India in June 2005 against arch-rivals Pakistan and found the back of the net on his debut.

In his club career, Chhetri has won many accolades. With Dempo, he won the I League 2009-10, followed by a win with Churchill Brothers in the 2012-13 season.

The majority of Chhetri’s accomplishments have come with Bengaluru FC which includes I League (2013-14, 2015-16), Indian Super League (2018-19), Federation Cup (2014-15, 2016-17), Super Cup (2018) and Durand Cup (2022).

AFC - Chhetri & Kohli
Chhetri with Virat Kohli. Image Credit: Courtesy: X

Kohli pays tribute

Chhetri’s friend, Virat Kohli, commented on the footballer’s Instagram video, expressing his pride in his “brother”. He stated, “My Brother, PROUD.”

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) issued a poignant tribute on Chhetri’s retirement, hailing the 39-year-old as an icon not only for football but also for sports as a whole.

“Your career has been nothing short of extraordinary and you have been a phenomenal icon for Indian football and Indian sports. Go well, Captain! #TeamIndia,” BCCI posted on X.

India’s goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sadhu also responded to the announcement on social media, saying he wishes he could alter Chhetri’s mind but understands why he made the choice and urged the people to enjoy his incredible career with the national team.

“Never wanted to see this happen, I wish I could do something to change your mind but I also understand why it is happening bhai. The whole country needs to celebrate your International career on the 6th of June in the way you deserve. My Captain,” Gurpreet commented on Chhetri’s post.

Indian spinner Yuzvendra Chahal wished Chhetri a happy retirement on X and wrote, “What a run you have had! Congratulations on an amazing career @chetrisunil11 Happy Retirement, legend.”

Meanwhile, Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) also wished Chhetri, who is widely regarded as the country’s greatest footballer ever, and wrote, “19 years. 94 goals. One Legend. International football will miss you, Sunil Chhetri! Kolkata will be there for your last dance on June 6!”

Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), also paid tribute to India skipper and wrote on their social media platform, “What a ride this has been, skipper!”

RCB praised Chhetri as a role model for aspiring young players, citing his outstanding international record of 94 goals and steadfast determination.

“Happy farewell to the No. 11 but India’s #1,” the tweet concluded.

Chhetri featured at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and was first named the national team captain at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers and led India to yet another Nehru Cup trophy in 2012.

In a career that spanned over 19 years, the Arjuna Award winner has 94 goals in 150 matches on the international stage. The most-capped Indian footballer is the third-highest goal-scorer on the global stage with icons Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi ahead of him.