Bhaichung Bhutia: A fairytale journey

Sirshendu Panth

Kolkata, Aug 24 (IANS) From the sleepy Tinkitam village in mountainous Sikkim to playing professional football in England, striking genius Bhaichung Bhutia has traversed many unchartered territories in Indian soccer to emerge as a rare non-cricketing sports icon pampered alike by the masses and the corporates.

As the 34-year-old forward, hailed 'God's gift to Indian football' by another gifted striker I.M. Vijayan, called it quits from international football Wednesday, he left behind a trail of outstanding goals - 42 in 107 appearances for the country spread over 16 years.

What he lacked in height at 5'8', Bhutia made up with his sharp intelligence, superb athleticism and reflexes, and an uncanny ability to find the goals, which endeared him to the football buffs turning out in their thousands to enjoy the flair that characterised the Sikkimese sniper's game.

The short stature only camouflaged his physical and mental toughness, and an iron will to go all out for the goals notwithstanding hard tackles, as many defenders were at his wit's end to combat Bhutia's sixth sense at anticipation that helped him to position himself perfectly and at the right time to finish off in style rather than with raw power.

A complete striker - arguably India's numero uno in the last two decades with Vijayan as his only competitor, Bhutia was at his dangerous best in the box, constantly disturbing the rival guards with his off-the-ball running and sudden bursts of speed.

A natural leader, Bhutia has captained the country for 12 long years from 1999 to the AFC Asian Cup early this year and played stellar roles in helping the national side win the Nehru Cup (twice), LG Cup, South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship (thrice) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup.

India's most capped player, Bhutia became the first footballer to represent the country in 100 matches when he took the field against Kyrgyzstan in the 2009 Nehru Cup. Bhutia scored in the match, in a repeat of his debut international opposite Uzbekistan in the same competition at Kolkata in 1995. Then 19, Bhutia's strike made him India's youngest ever goalscorer.

Born Dec 15, 1976 in a family of farmers in a remote terrain of South Sikkim, Bhutia was mentored in his early years by his uncle Karma Bhutia. He caught attention with his performance in the 1992 Subroto Cup inter-schools football championship, and next year was roped in by Kolkata giants East Bengal - for which Bhutia has played the maximum number of games in club soccer in four spells.

He helped the red and gold brigade win the ASEAN Cup in 2003 at Jakarta, where he netted nine goals to emerge as the tournament's top scorer besides winning the man of the match award in the final against BEC Tero Sasana.

Between 1995 and 1997, Bhutia opted for JCT Mills Phagwara and helped the side win the maiden national league in 1996-97 where he finished as top scorer.

He also had two stints with Mohun Bagan.

In the international arena, Bhutia was named the most valuable player in the SAFF Championship of 1999 and 2005, and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, and the player of the tournament in the 2009 Nehru Cup.

High on ambition and capable of dreaming big, a streak in his character that made him stand out from his peers, Bhutia nursed a desire to ply his trade in Europe from his early days. He set out for England and after unsuccessful trials with Fulham F.C., West Bromwich Albion F.C. and Aston Villa F.C, he finally landed a three-year contract with Bury F.C. in 1999.

However, his tryst with Bury was marred by a recurring knee injury and Bhutia was released in August 2001.

In October 2003, Bhutia also played on three-month loan from East Bengal for Malaysia's leading outfit Perak.

Articulate, fluent in English, and sophisticated, Bhutia has been the face of Indian football internationally, besides being the country's only soccer player with a high brand value, despite his playing career coinciding with an age when cricket eclipsed all other sports both in terms of crowd support and commercial appeal.

In a country where the corporates run after cricketers with lucrative commercial deals, Bhutia has promoted international sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas, besides receiving a constant flow of endorsement offers from manufacturers of mattresses and watches to real estate, bakery and game-promotion companies.

In 2008, Bhutia became the first Indian sportsperson to refuse to participate in the Beijing Olympics torch relay, expressing his support for the Tibetan independence movement.

Married to longtime sweetheart Madhuri, Bhutia runs the Bhaichung Bhutia Football School in Delhi, and in yet another first owns the United Sikkim Club, for which he will still be seen in action in domestic soccer. He is also the founder of the Football Players Association of India.