The 16 year old journey of India’s most celebrated footballer Bhaichung Bhutia has come to an end. It was the journey of a boy from Tinkitam in Sikkim who left home at the tender age of 11. A journey of a boy, who, with football in his heart, left his farmer parents to join Tashi Namgyal Academy in the state capital Gangtok, so that he can play football. Bhutia who joined his professional football career in 1993 when he joined the East Bengal Club in Calcutta scored 42 goals in 107 international appearances.
An emotional Bhutia, announcing his retirement from international football said that he had “no regrets”. Reflecting on his career, Bhutia said, “I enjoyed every bit of it. There were some difficult moments, but I have no complaints against anyone (coaches and administrators). I was lucky to have played alongside some great players.”
“I’m not actually sad, you know. I have a place to go, United Sikkim, my football club. Whenever I feel like playing, I can just go to the ground without seeking anybody’s permission or asking whether I can play or not.”
The striker co-owns and plays for United Sikkim FC in Indian domestic football.
Present on the occasion were Bhutia’s first captain, Tanumoy Bose, JCT coach Sukhwinder Singh and close friend Renedy Singh.
The decision to retire was prompted by constant injuries in the past year.
“I thought of calling it a day after winning the AFC Challenge Cup. It gave us passport to the Asian Cup, the biggest achievement in my career. I wanted to do it during the Asian Cup but the preparation didn’t go all that well. I could manage only 15 minutes against South Korea. I wanted to play one last game. But the injury didn’t help and it was so frustrating that I decided to call time on my international career.”
“Sometimes in life, you don’t get what you want.”
The TOI wrote, “It was the only time his eyes welled up during the whole media interaction.”
Bhutia was picked for the upcoming tour of England, but a calf-muscle injury has grounded him. A frustrating nine-month struggle to get fit finally forced him to quit.
“It has been quite a frustrating nine months. I couldn’t play the World Cup but hope that I get to see India play at the highest level in my lifetime. It’s sad I will not be playing for India, but then one can’t keep playing.”
“Personally, it was a great honour for me to have represented India,” said the celebrated footballer.
Looking ahead, Bhutia noted: “Indian football is moving in the right direction and needs support from all quarters. (Sunil) Chettri and Jeje (Lalpekhlua) are very good. But we need many more like them, some superstars.”
The veteran, who made his debut as a substitute in the 1995 Nehru Cup in Calcutta, became the poster boy of Indian football in the years to come. He was also the first Indian to play professional football in Europe when he was signed by English club Bury on a three-year contract in 1999.
“Players come and go. We need better players than Baichung Bhutia. We have enough talent but need effective grassroots programmes and work on the infrastructure.”
Bhutia is the recipient of country’s fourth-highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, and the country’s second highest sporting award, the Arjuna award. Talking about about the current generation of footballers Bhutia said, “In terms of talent, the era of (I.M.) Vijayan and (Jo Paul) Ancheri was better, but the current lot is more professional. I am convinced Vijayan could have played for any club in the world but the players in that era were not so professional. The current lot is more dedicated,” he said.
The 34 year Bhutia noted that the level of competition has improved and players have more options now.
Bhutia’s personality helped bring football ring bells even at the height of crikcet in cricket-crazy India. He was one of the few non-cricket players who won lucrative endorsement contracts with major firms like Adidas and later Nike.
Asked about his most cherished moments, Bhutia said: “Qualifying for the Asia Cup was very special. The last three-four years were memorable. We played some good football and won tournaments.”
He was the most valuable player in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup held in Delhi.
What about the worst moments? “Every defeat. (They all) hurt.”
He also singled out the 6-1 defeat to Japan in the 2006 World Cup qualifier as the most forgettable moment of his playing career.
(With inputs from The Hindu)