After the post-match hugs and handshakes had been done with, Sunil Chhetri went on a solo lap of honour at Kolkata’s Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan while his teammates waited near the dugout.

In many ways, the lap around the stadium, after India’s disappointing draw against Kuwait in their 2026 Fifa World Cup Qualifying second round match, summed up Chhetri’s career in the Indian jersey.

For most of the 19 years he played for the Indian team, he was often the lone shining light, single handedly providing the few moments of joy for fans.

A crunch penalty dispatched with ease, netting hat-tricks when required and harrying defenders twice his size just through sheer will. And on Thursday night, even at 39, he was attempting more sprints than any other player on the pitch.

But in what was probably India’s biggest match in a long time, Chhetri unfortunately could not deliver. It is not a slight on the man who has routinely stepped up for the country over for almost two decades. After all, it’s not everyday you see male footballers score 94 goals in 151 matches for their national team.

Now, less than two months short of turning 40, age is catching up to the striker. The hunger and determination is still there to be seen, but perhaps the pace and endurance has declined – the Chhetri from two years ago would have buried Liston Colaco’s cut back on Thursday.

After being redeployed to the No 10 role (positioned just behind the striker) behind half-time substitute Rahim Ali, Chhetri was not able to dictate the attacks like he did through most of his career.

But unlike many legendary athletes across sport, Chhetri realised he needed to step away to help his team continue moving forward. One last perfectly-timed move from the Indian icon. His one last selfless act for his team.

Also Read – Unanswered question: Sunil Chhetri will leave a big void in the striker’s role for the national team

It is not an easy task to condense Chhetri’s impact on Indian football in a few hundred words. Ever the consummate professional, Chhetri has laid the benchmark for his successors on and off the field.

At one of his last press conferences, Chhetri, when asked how he would like to be remembered. He kept his answer simple: “A very good looking and hardworking player.”

It was an answer typical of the man to be self-deprecating even when stating the truth.

Chhetri never shied away from calling himself and his teammates out after poor performances. Neither did he try to deflect blame or wriggle his way out of trouble via pithy excuses. No one has been a bigger critic of Chhetri than himself.

“We did not play the way we should have,” he said after a particularly hurtful loss to lowly Guam in 2015. “It was very disturbing and disappointing. To come back to the dressing room knowing that you have not given your best is not a happy feeling at all.”

But his responsibilities to his team went beyond all that happened on the pitch. In most of his interactions with fans and the media, he would always end with a fervent plea to continue supporting Indian football and ensuring that stadiums are packed to the rafters for India matches.

During the 2018 Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, barely 2,000 fans turned up for India’s tournament opener against Chinese Taipei, in which Chhetri scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 win. Before the next match against Kenya, which was the forward’s 100th match for country, Chhetri took to social media to plead with fans to come out to watch the national team.

“It is not fun to criticse or abuse us on the internet,” he said. “Come to the stadium and do it to our faces. But please come to the stadiums and watch us.”

The impact was immediate. Thousands of fans braved heavy rains to watch Chherti score twice to lead India to a 3-0 win. He would score three more goals in the following two matches as India lifted the title.

A couple of years later, Chhetri’s leadership off the field was once again on display. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chhetri decided to use his social media reach for good by handing over his X, formerly known as Twitter, account to people working for Covid-19 relief.

A true leader on and off the pitch who will be dearly missed.

But most of all, Chhetri’s humility will be sorely missed. He has never been one for showboating or for extravagant celebrations. In an age where athletes are often guilty of letting fame and fortune get to themselves, Chhetri has been the shining example of a model athlete.

Even while being the centre of a frankly over-the-top felicitation ceremony after the match against Kuwait, Chhetri partook in it even to keep all the administrators and power brokers happy.

As Chhetri walks away after a glittering career, what will his legacy be defined as? Will it be as the record appearance maker and goalscorer? Will it be his longevity? Or will it be him carrying Indian football on his back for nearly 20 years?

Chhetri’s departure signals a seismic shift in Indian football not felt even when IM Vijayan or Bhaichung Bhutia retired. The team’s lynchpin and leader from the front, Chhetri leaves a massive void which Igor Stimac and Indian football will be hard-pressed to fill.

Chhetri walks away as a generational footballer whose absence will be painfully felt in the coming years.