Emotional Indian legend Chhetri bows out with Kuwait draw

Fans in Kolkata hold a banner displaying photos of India's Sunil Chhetri (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR)
Fans in Kolkata hold a banner displaying photos of India's Sunil Chhetri (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR)

Thousands cheered a tearful Sunil Chhetri off the pitch after his last match for India on Thursday, bringing to a close an international career which put him among the world's all-time leading scorers.

Nearly 59,000 fans came to watch the captain's swan song in Kolkata -- a 0-0 draw against Kuwait in a World Cup qualifier -- a remarkable turnout in a country where football comes a distant second to cricket in popularity.

The 39-year-old forward scored 94 goals for India over a career spanning nearly two decades, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Iran's retired Ali Daei and Lionel Messi in the all-time international scorers'  list.

Fans flocked to the stadium hours before gates opened to chant, sound bullhorns and dance in the baking afternoon heat.

Fans roared during Chhetri's fleeting opportunities on the ball but otherwise the atmosphere in the stands was subdued.

"Referee don't blow the whistle, otherwise Sunil Chhetri will leave us," said one banner hanging from the stands.

Another showed a stooped Chhetri carrying a giant football daubed with the saffron, white and green of India's flag.

But his 151st and final appearance failed to help India to victory over Kuwait in the Asian World Cup qualifier.

Chhetri's best chance in the 55th minute came to nothing when a pass from Brandon Fernandes was intercepted by the Kuwait keeper.

An emotional Chhetri waved to crowds and pressed his palms together in thanks as he departed the field.

He wiped away tears as he walked through an honour guard formed by his teammates to see him off the pitch.

- 'Inspiration to everyone' -

Chhetri is a sporting icon in cricket-mad India.

The diminutive striker, who is 1.7 metres tall (5ft 7in), made his debut against fierce rivals Pakistan in 2005 and scored India's only goal.

He hit a hat-trick against Tajikistan to help India qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years in 2011.

"He became a legend while still playing, and that's something only a few can do," India's coach Igor Stimac said last month.

"He's an inspiration to everyone, absolutely committed to the Indian jersey."

Chhetri had two brief but unsuccessful spells in Portugal and the United States, but has spent most of his career in India.

He currently plays for Bengaluru.

In 2009 he was offered a contract by London club Queens Park Rangers, in England's second tier, but he could not get a work permit.

India are second in Group A, behind already qualified Qatar and a point ahead of Afghanistan and Kuwait, with the top two advancing.

India play Qatar in Doha on Tuesday while Kuwait host Afghanistan in the final round of group games.