Sunil Chhetri’s retirement, like M.S. Dhoni’s from IPL, is among the most discussed news stories. But such is the radiance the 38-year-old emits even in the autumn of his sporting life that all talk of his career winding up die a quick death.
On Friday, ahead of the SAFF Championship semifinal against Lebanon, when a scribe asked him if this tournament could be his last national team outing in his beloved city of Bengaluru, Chhetri’s first reaction was: “Wow!”
“I have no idea when my last game for the country is going to be,” Chhetri went on. “It derives from the fact that I have never had long-term targets, I think about the next 10 days, the next match and the next training session. There may come a day when I’d probably will not want to [play] and I will be done. Till that time, I never think about it.
“Generally, there are some parameters that I think about...whether I am contributing to the team or not, whether I am able to sprint with Udanta [Singh] or not, whether I am going for headers with Sandesh [Jhingan] or not, whether I am able to score against Gurpreet [Singh Sandhu] or not.
“All these markers tell me whether I am good enough for this team. The day I see that it is not there, I am done, I am gone. Because there is no other motivation for me to play – one is the fact that I love football and the other is that I won’t get the opportunity to play for the country. Only these two are left...the fame, the money all are done and they don’t impress me.
“But sadly, I can’t tell whether it (retirement) is tomorrow, in one year or in six months. Fortunately or unfortunately my family is also guessing now, and whenever they mention this, jokingly, I throw my stats at them. The day my petrol is finished or diesel or electric or whatever...I am done,” Chhetri added.
What drives Chhetri is probably the chance to cap his stellar career with a fine performance at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. The SAFF Championship, with West Asian sides Kuwait and Lebanon in it, is a vital competition that will help the nation settle on a core and crystallise a playing philosophy for the marquee tournament
“We are gelling well. That is what one and half months of preparation does,” Chhetri said. “Also, a lot of boys who are doing well...I am not a fan of throwing names...but [Lallianzuala] Chhangte, [Naorem] Mahesh have had very good ISL seasons and they have carried their form along.
“When you play the likes of Lebanon and Kuwait, you get an idea of how the likes of Syria, Uzbekistan [Asian Cup opponents] are. Of course, Uzbekistan is a top team. But it does give you an idea of what you are going to face.
“We will be meeting Australia but until then we will be playing the ISL. With due respect to ISL, we might not face the same tempo and standard Australia will bring.
“That’s why I am really happy that the likes of Kuwait and Lebanon agreed to come. With all due respect to the SAFF level, these matches give you a different idea and a different challenge. For us, in preparing for the Asian Cup, it is going to be helpful,” Chhetri added.
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