Vikram Partap looks the pick of the post-Chhetri bunch

Vikram Partap Singh (Image: AIFF)/Sunil Chhetri (Image: RevSportz)

Sunil Chhetri, Indian football’s talisman in the 21st century, officially hung up his boots on June 6 in front of a roaring crowd of nearly 60,000 at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. The goalless draw against Kuwait that night has set the stage for a do-or-die clash against Qatar for the Blue Tigers. This pivotal game marks the beginning of a new era for Indian football, as the team prepares to take the field without Chhetri for the first time in 19 years, outside of suspensions and injuries. It is now time to look beyond SC11.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been named the captain for this decisive match against Qatar. The long-standing question of “Who after Chhetri?” has now become a pressing reality. Chhetri started his national team career alongside Bhaichung Bhutia, and over his illustrious career, he played with several strikers such as Jeje Lalpekhlua, Robin Singh, Balwant Singh, Joachim Abranches, and Halicharan Narzary, yet none managed to provide the same level of consistent service to the national team. Chhetri had been the constant through various transitions.

Recent years have seen flashes of potential from players like Ishan Pandita, who made headlines by scoring crucial goals as a substitute for FC Goa after returning to India from Spain. However, injuries and limited game time prevented him from cementing his place as a dependable striker for the national team. Manvir Singh has been tried as a No. 9, but his preferred position is on the wings. Lallianzuala Chhangte, despite his talent, has openly stated that his height limits his effectiveness as a box striker. Rahim Ali and Rahul KP have also been given opportunities but have yet to establish themselves as regulars in the team.

Manvir Singh for the Indian National Team (Image: AIFF)

Among the emerging talents, Vikram Partap Singh stands out. Representing Mumbai City FC, he scored eight goals and provided four assists in 23 games during the 2023-24 Indian Super League season. However, for the national team, he has only played 66 minutes across three substitute appearances. Manvir Singh, with 42 caps, has managed just seven goals and one assist for the Blue Tigers. In the recent match against Kuwait, Rahim Ali had a golden opportunity to secure a win for India, but he failed to convert a one-on-one chance, highlighting the need for more clinical finishing.

The current squad, particularly the forward line, is young and relatively inexperienced at the international level. This inexperience was evident from the Kuwait match statistics, where no player other than Chhetri had double-digit goals for the national team. However, with Chhetri now retired, there is an opportunity for a new striker to prove his worth as a regular starter rather than just a substitute.

One promising prospect is Edmund Lalrindika, a young centre forward who plays for Inter Kashi in the I-League. He scored six goals and made nine assists in the 2023-24 season, showcasing impressive dribbling skills that have caught the national team’s attention.

Edmund Lalrindika for Indian National Team (Image: AIFF)

Looking ahead, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) might also consider exploring talents among Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders playing in foreign leagues. For instance, the UK-Indian brothers Reiss and Brandon Khela play for Leicester City U18 and Birmingham City. Kamran Kandola, a Wolves U21 centre-back, and Riley Delgado, a defender for LA Galaxy U17, along with Diego Rambocus, a Dutch-Indian central midfielder at Feyenoord U17, are also promising prospects. While playing for European clubs doesn’t automatically qualify these players to replace established Indian team members, it opens up a vast pool of young talent for future consideration.

As Indian football steps into this new chapter without Chhetri, the focus will be on finding and nurturing a new generation of strikers who can carry forward his legacy. The upcoming match against Qatar will be a true test of the team’s resilience and ability to adapt to life after their legendary captain. A great opportunity for players like Vikram Partap, Rahim, Manvir or Lalrindika to get a full 90 minutes on the pitch and prove that all is not lost with Chhetri’s retirement.