The stands were almost full, but still there was an eerie sense of emptiness because the irrepressible Sunil Chhetri, after being intrinsically tied to Indian football for 19 years, was cutting the umbilical cord with no successor in sight.

A sea of blue, with most fans sporting Chhetri`s No. 11 jersey, packed the Salt Lake Stadium as the long-serving India captain played one last time in international football.

On the night, India were playing Kuwait in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier.

Seated in the front seat next to the driver, Chhetri was the first to step out of the team bus. Outside the gates, a wave of Blue Tigers fans, undeterred by a passing thunderstorm, turned up in large numbers, waving the Tricolour and cheering passionately.

All roads virtually led to the Salt Lake Stadium, as the bikers came whistling, shouting India, India and waving the national flag.

Alighting from the team bus, Chhetri headed straight to the popular `Lozenge Mashi of Maidan`, Jamuna Das, an East Bengal supporter who is a regular at every match at this iconic stadium selling Lozenges of various flavours.

Chhetri gave her a hug and indulged in a conversation before heading straight to the pitch and taking a round of the venue with folded hands.

A giant poster describing him as `Sonar Sunil. Tomay Hrid Majhare Rakhbo` (Golden Sunil. Will keep you in my heart) greeted the striker just opposite of the dugout as fans started pouring in.

The spectators filled the stadium where several posters dotted the galleries that had words like `India Till I Die`, `Thanks Captain. Leader. Legend`.

Standing as the last man behind goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Chhetri was seen singing the national anthem loudly.

Also Read: India play out goalless draw vs Kuwait in Chhetri`s last international match

Before the start, All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey, state sports minister Arup Bhattacharya greeted him.

“Welcome Sunil Chhetri @chetrisunil11 to the beginning of a glorious new journey. You start a new phase of life today,” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote in her post on X.

“You have been a golden boy of Bengal, Captain of the Indian football team, a sports icon of Asia, a globally adored scorer, a giant achiever. I am sure that you will continue to play, add to our glory and achieve many more laurels for yourself and us.

“It is not a day of farewell for you. It is a day to renew your pledge to uphold the glory of your family, Bengal and India further and further. Wish and pray for your future successes.”

In the FIFA World Cup Qualifier match, the 39-year-old looked the most youthful and sprinted past his young teammates, hoping to add to his record tally of 94 goals in his 151th appearance.

The fans kept shouting ;Sunil, Sunil`, `Vande Mataram` and his best chance in the first half came in the 11th minute, when Liston Colaco burst down the left wing, sending in a low cross.

Chhetri was poised to score, but Hasan Alanezi`s sliding clearance thwarted the attempt.

While his father-in-law and former coach Subrata Bhattacharya was conspicuous by his absence, wife Sonam, nine-month old son Dhurv, brother-in-law Saheb Bhattacharya were there to cheer for him from the stands.

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