Baichung Bhutia’s retirement End Of An Era
Indian football is in a state of flux. The national team has failed to qualify for 2012 London Olympics and 2014 World Cup. The country is ranked 158 among the 203 football-playing countries, according to FIFA. Many clubs have been disbanded and sponsors are reluctant to come in a big way. Amid this gloomy scenario the poster boy of the game, Captain Baichung Bhutia has announced his retirement from international arena. He will now spend most of his time with his own team United Sikkim Football Club (USFC), which he has set up to give back to the game, which has given him so much.
“Let’s not forget India is a vast country and football has a huge fan following. But there are certain parts which hasn’t had a representation as far as the I-League is concerned. Hence, I thought we should have a local team from Sikkim which should serve as a role model to others,” he said and one wishes others will also follow in his footsteps. Bhutia has the distinction of being the longest-serving captain of Indian team. He had led the national team for 11 years (2000-2011) and during his captaincy, country won five tournaments. Under him, India won the South Asian Football Federation Championships thrice, two Nehru Cup titles (2007 and 2009) and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup which gave India the right to play in the Asian Cup this year for the first time after 1984. Some experts have even called this an end of an era in Indian football and said that it was highly unlikely that country would see any player of his calibre in near future.
Bhutia ended his international career because the 34-year-old star striker has been struggling with injuries. “I wanted to continue playing but the last seven-eight months have been frustrating due to a lot of injuries. So I have decided to quit. I had fantastic 16 years of international football. I enjoyed every moment to have represented the country, to have contributed to the game,” Baichung said while announcing his retirement.
Born on December 15, 1976, at Namchi, the five-feet eight-inch Baichung made his international debut against Thailand in 1995 in Kolkata and went onto play more than 100 international games. He reached the milestone during the 2009 Nehru Cup. He is often called the Sikkimese Sniper because of his shooting skills in football. Three-time Indian Player of the Year. IM Vijayan described Bhutia as “God’s gift to Indian football”. But he was dropped from the Indian squad selected for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and the preparatory matches.
Way back in 2006 he had almost decided to call it a day after his tiff with Coach Syed Nayeemuddin and team’s string of poor showings, but he changed his mind after a request from the then AIFF president Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi and new coach Bob Houghton. Bhutia first hit the limelight in 1992 Subroto Cup in New Delhi where he played for SAI Centre, Gangtok. Next year, he was signed by East Bengal after his great showings in the Subroto Cup and for the National team in the Asian Under-16 Cup Qualifiers.
In 1995, he along with several other leading players of the country joined JCT (Phagwara) and the Punjab club had the distinction of winning its first-ever I-League title. Bhutia scored the maximum number of goals in the League for JCT and earned the “Indian Player of the Year 1996” award.
He earned the distinction of being the only player ever to score a hatrick in a match between the most famous arch-rivals of the Indian Football—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. In the 1998-99 season he was club captain, one of the youngest ever at 21. He has been honoured with Indian Player of the Year award twice (1995 and 2008). In 1999, he received the Sikkim State Award, and Arjuna Award. In 2008, he was awarded the Padmashree. After unsuccessful trials with English Premiership side Aston Villa and Championship clubs Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, Baichung finally signed for Division Two club Bury FC in 1999 to become the first Indian to play in Europe. He had been with Bury FC for three years till 2002. Afterwards he had a short spell with Malaysian club Perak FA and Mohun Bagan, which failed to win the league once during his two spells.
He also was in the limelight for being the first Indian sportspersons to boycott the Beijing Olympic Torch relay in support of the Tibetan movement. Off the field, Bhutia hit big time in 2009 when he participated in the TV reality programme Jhalak Dikhhla Ja and won Rs 40 lakh prize money with chorographer Sonia Jaffar which earned him massive publicity but caused much controversy with his then-club Mohun Bagan. There is a football stadium named after Bhutia in Sikkim. Football legends, led by Chuni Goswami and PK Banerjee, hailed him as one of the best players India has ever produced. Describing Bhutia as the last player from India who could come close to top Asian standard, Banerjee termed the retirement of the Sikkimese as the end of an era.
Chuni Goswami called Bhutia one of the brightest football stars India has ever produced. “Qualifying for the Asian Cup was a big feather in his (Baichung’s) cap. He was very competitive, dedicated and we all enjoyed watching him. He was one of the brightest stars to come out of India. He was a very fine footballer to come out of India,” Goswami said. Former defender Manoranjan Bhattacharya said that Bhutia was an inspirational leader and led by example.
On the other hand, former coach Syed Nayeemuddin accused Bhutia of conspiracy during the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2006. Nayeemuddin, who was sacked unceremoniously after India’s defeats against Japan and Yemen, blamed Bhutia for the debacle and demanded a CBI inquiry into the matches held five years ago. Former defender Subrata Bhattacharya and Dhyan Chand awardee Shabbir Ali, too, were critical of the ‘Sikkimese Sniper’, saying the media had made him the face of football in India. Former Mohun Bagan defender Subrata Bhattacharya said Bhutia should have quit earlier.
However, despite these praises and controversies, Bhutia affirms that he is only dedicated to the sport of football. He will continue to play for his club United Sikkim FC which he founded. The club failed to qualify for I-League this season but he will be keen to take the side to the Federation Cup main round. “My playing career is committed solely to United Sikkim. I will never play for any other Indian club apart from USFC. I am getting offers from I-League clubs for the next season but I will not move out anymore. Even if USFC doesn’t qualify for next season’s I-League, I won’t change my mind,” he said. He has no ego problems. He is thrilled that USFC has in a very short time become a symbol of hope and aspiration of the football-loving youth of the region. He said: “My commitment and contribution to Indian football will not diminish and I am ready to help the AIFF in whatever way they want me.”
By Harpal Singh Bedi