A few years ago, one of the Marcellus staff members received a text message from the Indian football captain, Sunil Chhetri, saying that he had seen some of our videos, read one our books and wanted to talk. We reached out and had the good fortune to meet the great man in Kolkata. We spoke at length about his upbringing in various parts of India as the son of an Army man, his move to Kolkata to play for Mohun Bagan in 2002, his subsequent career at club & country level and the gruelling training regime that came with it (5am start to training every single day). What astonished us was how much he had thought about investing his money properly and how to build a meaningful life after football. Now that the third highest goal scorer in international football (behind only Ronaldo and Messi) has retired from the great game, it is time to salute one of the greatest heroes in contemporary Indian sport. To quote the editorial from the Indian Express:

“He was a striker who could double up as a winger. A forward who would rush back to defend corners. And a 5-foot-6-inch tall player who leapt over towering defenders and scored from headers…

Not always among the best in the world, the skills of India’s football heroes haven’t gone unnoticed. There was the blistering pace of Chuni Goswami, inventiveness of Tulsidas Balaram, aura of PK Banerjee, grace of Jo-Paul Ancheri, flair of IM Vijayan and flamboyance of Bhaichung Bhutia. Then, there’s Sunil Chhetri, the one-man army who kept reinventing himself, acted as a bridge between generations, made sure Indian football didn’t sink in the last decade. A star of his generation, the India captain announced on Thursday that he will hang up his boots after the 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup joint qualifier against Kuwait on June 6.

Chhetri’s greatness is often lost in the numbers: 150 national team matches and 94 goals. But statistics do not reveal his actual impact on Indian football. When he made his international debut as a 20-year-old, Chhetri had teammates who were born in the 1970s. When he quits as a 39-year-old, Chhetri will be surrounded by those born in 2002 and 2003. Carrying the baton diligently through turbulent times, he survived several churns. Bhutia’s era was of semi-professionals where the players held day-jobs to support their football dreams. Chhetri ushered in an age of full-blown professionalism in Indian football, right from the way the players played and what they ate. They had the enterprise to go the extra mile to fine-tune their skills and the daring to dream of a career abroad.”

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