Kolkata: Talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri “may be playing the last season” of his illustrious career, feels Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac, who is hoping that his star player would be saving his best for the last in the coming months.
India’s next big assignment is the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar from January 12 to February 10 next year. The 38-year-old Chhetri is set to play in his third continental showpiece, the most by an Indian, after playing a pivotal role in the qualification tournament here last year.
“At his age, this will probably be his farewell from football. Obviously, Sunil may be playing his last season, and definitely his last Asian Cup,” Stimac said.
“I’m quite sure that the upcoming months will be the best for Sunil Chhetri,” he was quoted as saying in the official All India Football Federation (AIFF) website.
The national team is currently having a five-day camp here ahead of the Tri-Nation Football Tournament in Imphal from March 22.
Chhetri, the third most prolific international goal scorer among active players with 84 strikes behind Cristiano Ronaldo (118) and Lionel Messi (98), was part of the Indian teams that featured in the 2011 and 2019 Asian Cup.
The 38-year-old Chhetri, who made his international debut in 2005, played a key role in Bengaluru FC making to Indian Super League final to be played on Saturday.
“Sunil Chhetri was nowhere to be seen this season. He was on the bench, waiting, preparing himself, working to take his weight down a few kilos, which is very difficult to handle at this age,” said Stimac who has been given the target of reaching Asian Cup quarterfinals if he wants to continue at the helm beyond that tournament.
“But when it was most needed, he was there for his club, helping them, and taking them to the finals. He scored the most decisive goals.” With 10 months to go for the Asian Cup, the 106-ranked Blue Tigers will play their first international match since September when they take on higher ranked Kyrgyz Republic (94) and Myanmar (159) in the international tournament in Imphal.
India drew 1-1 against Singapore and capped a 0-3 loss to Vietnam in their last international matches.
Along with Chhetri, the Indian team has also ageing stars in central-defender Sandesh Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and Stimac is well aware of the likely change in the core group of players in the near future.
“We need to understand that some of them are of a certain age now. It’s difficult to say, but goodbyes need to come sometime,” the 1998 World Cup bronze medallist Croatian said.
“Along with him (Chhetri), Sandesh (Jhingan) and Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) are the core strength of our team. I’ve never hidden that. I was never running away from the truth.
“They are free guys, with great characters, strong mindsets and a good mentality, which is a basic platform for us to build the team around. But of course, we need to keep their age in mind. Gurpreet and Sandesh may be there for four, or five years,” he added.