Unanswered question: Sunil Chhetri will leave a big void in the striker’s role for the Indian team

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Unanswered question: Sunil Chhetri will leave a big void in the striker’s role for the Indian team

By Shahid Judge

For over a decade, one question has pestered Indian football: “Who, after Sunil Chhetri?”

Chhetri is one of the most influential players the country has produced. But now, aged 39, he is set to call time on a 19-year international career. He will play his last game for India against Kuwait in the Fifa World Cup qualifier on June 6.

Filling Chhetri’s shoes will be a tough task for the current and next generation of players. 

Of course, there are players in the team well capable of inheriting his captain’s armband – one that he has proudly worn since 2011. The biggest void, however, that Chhetri leaves is in his striker’s position in the national team.

Since making his debut in 2005, Chhetri has made that forward position his own, and his spot in the team has never been challenged. Several strikers have come and gone, but none have managed to match the effectiveness, fervour, and guile with which Chhetri operated.

A look at the club level – what is supposed to be the breeding ground for the national team – does not paint a rosy picture either.

For decades, clubs have opted to sign foreign players to take up the responsibility of being the main striker. Budding Indian forwards are left to play second fiddle. They are either relegated to the bench or play out of position, most often as a winger.

Of course, there has always been that generational Indian talent whose spot as the starting striker could not be shaken.

There was the great IM Vijayan not too long ago, followed by the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia. When questions emerged about who after Bhutia, Chhetri rose to prominence and has remained a relevant figure ever since.

Coaches – from Stephen Constantine to Igor Stimac – have been asked who next in press conferences. The answers have always been optimistic, as they looked towards an upcoming generation that will take over the mantle. Chhetri too has been optimistic about the talent coming in – as he mentioned several times in a recent virtual conference.

But the Indian star, who has played 150 games for the country and scored 94 goals, mentioned that instead of the system trying to change for them, it is time the players change their mentality.

Clubs are businesses for whom winning is important. Creating players is part of that process, but if they can rope in readymade talent from abroad, especially in a position as important as the striker, they go for that option. Chhetri has instead called for players to start challenging that strategy with their talent.

He called for Manvir Singh (who plays for Mohun Bagan Super Giant) and Vikram Partap Singh (Mumbai City) – both strikers who are forced to play as wingers for their clubs – to approach their coaches and ask to be played as the main forward. And then prove that they deserve to play in that spot.

Chhetri had that gritty mentality, and he had the stomach for the fight. He made that position his own.

He has done all he could to provide for his team. His longevity also gave the youngsters time to find their feet and start making a case for themselves as the main forward.

But Chhetri’s biggest rival as the national team’s main striker has been time, not a new player taking the spot.

And now that he calls time on his long and illustrious career, India will need someone who can immediately perform at the same level HE did.

But who is that someone? There are no clear answers. Not yet, at least.

Fun fact of the week: The Indian Premier League’s two most successful teams – Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings – failed to qualify for the 2024 season’s playoffs. This is only the second time in 17 editions of the league that both teams have failed to qualify for the playoffs in a same season. The previous occasion was in 2022. The 2016 season also did not have either team making the playoffs, but the Super Kings were not a part of the tournament for that season.

Here's a recap of the top stories from this past week

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