HomeSportsTearful Sunil Chhetri bows out with Kuwait draw in FIFA World Cup...

Tearful Sunil Chhetri bows out with Kuwait draw in FIFA World Cup qualifiers

His 151st and final appearance failed to help India to victory over Kuwait in the Asian World Cup qualifier.

Bringing to a close an international career that put him among the world’s all-time leading scorers, thousands cheered a tearful Sunil Chhetri off the pitch after his last match on June 6.

With a 0-0 draw against Kuwait in a World Cup qualifier, nearly 59,000 fans came to watch the captain’s swan song in Kolkata. This becomes a remarkable turnout in a country where football comes a distant second to cricket in popularity.

Behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Iran’s retired Ali Daei, and Lionel Messi in the all-time international scorers’ list, the 39-year-old forward scored 94 goals for India, over a career spanning nearly two decades.

Hours before gates opened, fans flocked to the stadium to chant, sound bullhorns, and dance in the baking afternoon heat.

Fans roared during Chhetri’s fleeting opportunities on the ball but otherwise, the atmosphere in the stands was subdued.

One banner hanging from the stands said, “Referee don’t blow the whistle, otherwise Sunil Chhetri will leave us.”

A stooped Chhetri carrying a giant football daubed with the saffron, white, and green of India’s flag, showed another.

But his 151st and final appearance failed to help India to victory over Kuwait in the Asian World Cup qualifier.

In the 55th minute, Chhetri’s best chance came to nothing when a pass from Brandon Fernandes was intercepted by the Kuwait keeper.

Pressing his palms together in thanks, an emotional and tearful Chhetri waved to crowds as he departed the field.

He wiped away tears as he walked through an honour guard formed by his teammates to see him off the pitch.

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Sunil Chhetri, an inspiration

In cricket-mad India, Chhetri is a sporting icon.

1.7 metres tall (5ft 7in), the diminutive striker made his debut against fierce rivals Pakistan in 2005 and scored India’s only goal.

Against Tajikistan, he hit a hat-trick to help India qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years in 2011.

“He became a legend while still playing, and that’s something only a few can do,” India’s coach Igor Stimac said last month.

“He’s an inspiration to everyone, absolutely committed to the Indian jersey,” he added.

In Portugal and the United States, Chhetri had two brief but unsuccessful spells but has spent most of his career in India.

Sunil currently plays for Bengaluru.

He was offered a contract by London club Queens Park Rangers in 2009, in England’s second tier, but he could not get a work permit.

Behind already qualified Qatar, India is second in Group A, and a point ahead of Afghanistan and Kuwait, with the top two advancing.

On Tuesday, India plays Qatar in Doha while Kuwait hosts Afghanistan in the final round of group games.

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