Imperfect finish for Sunil Chhetri, the ice-cool finisher

Sunil Chhetri after the match, at VYBK (Image: Swapnil Mukherjee)

Soon after the 2019 World Cup was over – and it ended in heartbreak for India and MS Dhoni – he went to an army camp to escape the trauma. Not many know about it, but he went twice within a matter of months. “We slept out in the open and did all the drills,” he told me. “I wasn’t MS Dhoni there and that was the biggest satisfaction. In the army I am just another soldier and I could relax myself.”

Was the army an escape from what he had been through at the 2019 ICC World Cup? Could he not digest the defeat to New Zealand in the semi-final? Was the decision to move away from cricket prompted by a deep sense of trauma? Was he not as cool as he portrayed himself to be? When I asked him these questions, he did not give me a direct answer. All he said was: “I wish I had dived.” While one could understand the pain and feel it with him, the truth is that it was an imperfect finish for the perfect finisher.

Replace MS Dhoni with Sunil Chhetri, and the story is very much the same. As Sunil went round the stadium with folded hands, thanking the 59,000-strong crowd, one was left wondering what he wanted to convey. Was it his way of saying thank you for all the love over 19 years, or was he trying to say sorry for the imperfect finish last night?

Clearly, there was pain and a deep sense of frustration in the walk. Not what he had expected, or hoped for. The walk, more than anything, was an escape. He could lose himself in the experience of serving the country, and try and forget the trauma of not winning against Kuwait. Chhetri, one of India’s  best-ever strikers, was unable to score for his team in his last international match.

Image: Swapnil Mukherjee

While we will all remember Sunil for his incredible leadership and striking skills, we will also remember the last game. One of the greatest Indian footballers, even Sunil, much like Dhoni, couldn’t escape the cruelty of sport. A truly imperfect finish for yet another perfect finisher. He probably had tears in his eyes as he walked around the Salt Lake Stadium for one final time in India colours. And as he did so, we were left with lumps in our throats seeing a legend denied his last hurrah. But that’s sport. It is never perfect and there are no retakes. Even for the greatest, there is no rewind button. In what has been a truly remarkable career, which will forever be remembered in the annals of Indian sport, there will always be that one final match to lament. If only Sunil had scored. Or if Rahim Ali, a possible successor to Sunil, had converted a great chance.

We will always remember Sunil and what he did for our football. We will forever celebrate him. But the truth is Indian football needs Sunil now more than ever. With qualification into the third round looking a distant dream, one wonders what’s the way forward for the sport. Earlier, we could say we have Sunil, and he will figure a way out. Now, we don’t. With no Sunil, and no Igor Stimac, if the match against Qatar doesn’t give us a miracle result, it will be a long road ahead for Indian football. And without SC 11, it will be harder. But as Sunil always said, “I may not be as talented as Ronaldo or Messi, but I can certainly work as hard as them. That’s in my hands.” We need someone to say the same, and take the sport forward. That’s when those tears will get their true value, and Sunil his real due.

Without you, the sport is poorer, Sunil, but let me also say you can forever be proud and say you tried your very best. Not always are results in your hands, and that’s the reality of sport.