Sunil Chhetri has generally been quite reticent about basking in the spotlight. The all-time top goalscorer for the Indian senior men’s football team and one of its longest serving captains, the 39-year-old forward has never been one to welcome individual praise, always deflecting compliments about his performance as a team effort instead.

Chhetri’s humility was on display once again, on Friday during an online press conference, as he was open and frank in answering questions about his 19-year career donning the India blue. This trait has always been an aspect of Chhetri’s character from the time he took the field on his India debut in 2005 as a 20-year-old, and will continue to remain part of him when he wears the Indian jersey for the last time on June 6.

The praise that is often heaped on his individual achievements is not unwarranted – Chhetri has represented India 150 times (his last game will be the 151st) and has scored 94 goals, fourth behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (128*), Iran’s Ali Daei (108) and Argentina’s Lionel Messi (106*). He has regularly captained the men’s national team since 2011 and is often the first name that people think of when it comes to Indian football.

*Ronaldo and Messi are currently active in international football

Since announcing his retirement from international football, Chhetri claimed he had been inundated with scores of missed calls and messages, with the likes of Olympic medallist PV Sindhu and cricket World Cup winner Virat Kohli congratulating him on social media for his near-two-decade reign as the flag-bearer of Indian football.

But what does it take to be Sunil Chhetri? A supportive family, sports science experts and an amazing medical staff.

“It’s a part of being a footballer, especially a modern one when I had to consult people around me who were more knowledgeable, who gave me the information to take it on board and to try it and to apply it to myself which wasn’t difficult at all” explained Chhetri.

“There were times where I couldn’t even walk and they made me run. There were times where things looked very dim as far as my injuries were concerned, but they just applied their magic and I couldn’t be more thankful for whatever they have done.”

Chhetri’s incredible fitness levels was one of the reasons that he was able to last so long with the national team.

Unless he does something incredible and scores six goals against Kuwait in his final match, Chhetri will end his international career short of the 100-goal mark. But according to him, that is not a statistic he is particularly bothered by.

“At no point did I think or dream of scoring hundreds of goals,” he said. “I don’t feel hollow, but I’m very fortunate instead. One hundred and fifty games – that’s a number I really love and I’m proud of. It’s unique and I’m just very privileged and happy about it as far as numbers are concerned.”

Also read: Sunil Chhetri’s legacy goes beyond the playing field

After Chhetri, who next?

In a game that has become more and more physically demanding of players, Chhetri made it clear that it was not the physicality that drove his decision to retire from the national team – he will continue to play for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League.

In fact, the physical aspect was the easiest bit about the job for him. The pressure, the fatigue, the routine and discipline that came along in a career spanning almost two decades was bound to rear its head at some point too. And that mental aspect was the bit that urged him to make the decision nearly a fortnight after the game against Afghanistan in March.

“Everyday, I was fighting within myself and trying to analyse stuff,” said Chhetri. “I was trying to think more holistically. Initially, it was selfish because I was just thinking about myself. It took a while but now, as I talk to you, I’m at peace.

“It is of prime importance to me that I bring value to the team. Sometimes it might happen because of who I’ve become that I’m still carried by the team. And that is something that I never wanted.”

In the past few years, he has received a good amount of support from the young players coming into the team. Despite that, he has remained a vital cog in the side, which once again begged the age-old question that reverberates in Indian football – who after Chhetri?

Chhetri himself though, remained optimistic and felt better about leaving at a time when there are candidates who can step up. He asserted that the challenge at hand is that the long list of players capable of playing as strikers do not get enough time in that role when playing for their respective ISL clubs.

Most Indian clubs opt for foreign strikers. But Chhetri has remained a firm exception.

Chhetri’s consistency and longevity is down to his fortitude and mentality. He acknowledges the complexities involved but believes, this challenge can be overcome with a change in the players’ mentality.

“My appeal to them whenever I talk to them is to forget things that they can’t control.

Go on, Manvir [Singh], talk to your coach. Say, I want to play at No 9. Go on, Siva [Sivasakhti Narayan]. Come and demand the coach that you want to play No 9 because you have shown that you can do it. Go on, Vikram Partap [Singh]. Try. Okay, you did well as a left-winger. Say that I want to play at No 9.

Look at [Lallianzuala] Chhangte. Ten goals in two seasons! Back to back. He is the most important player when it comes to goals for Mumbai City FC.

So it’s not that the players can’t do it. I just want a change in their mentality. Just think that you’re competing against a player – them being foreigners or the coach. Leave out the things you can’t control. You just do your work. Because somebody has to take my place. The good thing is a lot of them are good enough and eager. It is the job of the coach and the entire team to build on the No 9 and a few options but you as a player have to want it. And you have to want it bad.

Make sure you step up, man. And, why not? It’s the best place to score goals. To get more chances is the best thing. So, why not?”

— Sunil Chhetri on how the next crop of Indian attackers can put forth their case
Sunil Chhetri has led the Indian men's national team since 2012 and is the most capped player. Credit: AIFF

In a career as long as Chhetri has had, there have certainly been a few moments where he would look back on and wonder, ‘what if?’

One of those moments was when Chhetri signed with Sporting Club de Portugal in 2012. Having been signed for a two-year contract with the reserves team, the hope was that it would be the impetus that Chhetri needed to propel himself to the bigger leagues in Europe. Alas, things didn’t work out in that way and Chhetri, then 28, saw himself return to India the next year and join Bengaluru FC.

When asked if he regretted coming back early and not pushing himself more, Chhetri disagreed, with a caveat.

“If I had been 17 or 18 when I went there, not only would I have loved to stay there, but I don’t think I would have come back,” said Chhetri.

“The level I was training at every day was outstanding. I was at one of the best clubs as far as talent management and nourishing talent is concerned. I know for a fact that I was becoming a better player every day at a very rapid pace.

“But the amount of playing time I was getting at that age, like 15-20 minutes wasn’t good for my morale. Especially after, Monday to Friday, feeling so good and upbeat physically.”

Chhetri enjoyed a prolific career with India – which includes 11 titles and three AFC Asian Cup appearances in 2011, 2019 and 2023. However, not qualifying for the 2015 edition of the continental tournament haunts Chhetri.

“Not qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup because of a dismal performance by me and the whole team is something that I always think about,” recalled Chhetri.

“We should have won that game [2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualification match against Myanmar] because we had so many chances, individually and collectively. Even now when I’m recalling it, I feel a little bit of anger on myself and on all the players who played the game also.”

For now though, Chhetri has no immediate plans to go into coaching or football administration.

“I really want to take a sabbatical and not jump into anything,” he added.

“I will never be far away from Indian football, but I want to bring some value. So I will look within myself to see what I’m good at and what I can bring to the table.”

While Chhetri takes a deserved step back and allows Indian football to move on from him, his leadership and strong mentality will remain as his own unshakeable legacy, whatever the result on June 6.