A rare talisman

Published : Sep 05, 2009 00:00 IST

Bhutia’s 17-year journey has been eventful, even controversial at times. But it is also a definite statement on the future of the game in the country, writes Vijay Lokapally.

“Bhutia injured…Bhutia injured.” The little boy ran in. His father was stunned. He was watching a Nehru Cup match and nothing of this sort had occurred on the field. “Where was Bhutia injured,” asked the surprised father. “Here,” the kid said, pointing to his own toe. Laughter filled the room but the father was quick to realise that a footballer, and not a cricketer, had captured the imagination of a six-year-old. Good sign for Indian football?

If a child wants to emulate Bhaichung Bhutia and not Sachin Tendulkar, it does not necessarily point to a dip in the popularity of cricket. It is just that an icon has emerged to carry football to the masses. If the swarm of fans at the school where the Indian team was training during the Nehru Cup was any indication, the young generation is certainly willing to repose faith in what Pele described as the “most beautiful game.”

Bhutia’s journey has been long, eventful and even controversial at times, but it is also a definite statement on the future of the game in the country. “It is bright,” assures the man who has played more than 100 internationals for the country, the first Indian to achieve this glorious feat. He is very passionate, very possessive and very aggressive when talking about his greatest love after wife Madhuri.

For Bhutia, football actually is second to none. He is the leader of a small bunch of men who have undertaken a mission that chief coach Bob Houghton promises would herald a new era in Indian football. “The team has begun to win,” asserts Bhutia and stands out as the most striking feature of the All-India Football Federation’s long-term plan to make the game more popular. And Bhutia is the epicentre of the positive signals that have emanated from the Indian camp.

Bhutia was hardly 15 when he walked into the Kolkata Maidan. The big clubs had fascinated him since childhood and this was just the beginning of his football saga. Shyamal Ghosh was his first club coach. “Bhaichung was a kid when he came to me. He wanted to be a striker and I was worried for him. He could have been injured. I used him sparingly for 10 minutes, 20 minutes. But whenever I used him he would score. His headers were very good because he has such an acrobatic body,” recalled Ghosh, who was the coach of East Bengal then.

Seventeen years later, Bhutia continues to score with strong headers. He is still acrobatic. Former team-mate and India goalkeeper Yusuf Ansari recollected: “Bhaichung is a complete player. Once I was shown the red card (in the Asia Cup in 1997 against Singapore) and he had to stand in as goalkeeper (in fact he volunteered). He let in three goals but believe me he was superb. He looked a goalkeeper every inch and I must tell you that he was playing the match with high fever.”

Come to think of it, Bhutia was on the verge of retiring from the game following differences with national coach Syed Nayeemuddin. Lack of communication was said to have sowed the seeds of suspicion between them and the situation only grew worse. To an extent that it became either Bhutia or Nayeemuddin. That was a dark period in his career and obviously best forgotten. But Nayeem rates Bhutia very high. So does current coach Bob Houghton, who resurrected Bhutia’s career. Houghton said, “When I joined (in 2006) Baichung was on the verge of leaving international football. He had not trained for a year.”

Bhutia, lured by the media for a brief period, was busy commentating on the World Cup. Houghton took him into confidence and a new chapter was opened in Bhutia’s career. He was now a picture of energy, his enthusiasm quite like the 15-year-old who wanted to conquer the Maidans of Kolkata. Bhutia the footballer had been resurrected.

The Bhutia-Houghton partnership was essential for the sake of Indian football. Not that India was making any waves as an international force. It never did. Here, however, was a desire, an opportunity to revive the game and Bhutia was identified as the central force by Houghton. How prophetic was the Englishman!

Bhutia has emerged the greatest crowd-puller in sport in the country after Tendulkar. His deft work on the football pitch, his jig around the line after slotting a goal and his disarming smile when greeting kids have enhanced Bhutia’s image as a sportsman worthy of national adulation. “He is more matured, fitter and an immensely gifted player. His biggest quality is that he is able to raise his game in big matches. He is a big match player,” gushed Houghton.

For the country’s youth, Bhutia is a glowing example of how determination can help one realise his dreams. From the hills of Sikkim to his current status as a star it has been hard work all the way. He has punished his body to become the best, to play 17 years of international football. “I have sacrificed everything for football,” he said in a hushed tone, as if trying to hide his emotions.

Most football watchers acknowledge Bhutia as a “bomber” inside the box. True, he is a bomber, a stealth bomber inside the box, but then his role begins even before the team has stepped on to the field. “He is an amazing team leader,” praised Houghton. Bhutia treats the team as his family.

No wonder he has launched the Football Players Association of India (FPAI) to fight for his mates, for better playing conditions, better pay and a worry-free life after retirement.

Watch him follow the ball as it dips in an arc; watch him take up positions to head the ball or slot it in. His timing is his forte. Defenders are left embarrassed as he steals the ball from under their nose to score. Like Anil Kumble in cricket, Bhutia is a smiling assassin in football. Not the one to concede an inch, he knows how to grab a goal when needed most. He is 32 but easily the most electric figure on the field.

To experience his humility, watch him when he is with kids. He is their “darling”, accommodating every request for a picture or an autograph. “We need them. We need well-wishers. We need to send the right signals to attract the young generation to love football and footballers,” said Bhutia with a smile.

The affable Bhutia has been a courageous soul, a fan’s delight, an opponent’s scourge, one who can score goals with consistency, not a big man but a formidable striker who knows his limitations well, ideally, a tactically sound footballer to revere. He has carried the team on his shoulders. Bhutia wants Indian football to do well. If it costs a limb, be it. “You can gain recognition only if the national team wins. Individual honours mean nothing to me.” He clearly does not like being pampered. “I keep my feet on the ground,” he insisted.

Bhutia can stay grounded but let Indian football take wings on the strength of his desire to deliver.

* * *What others say

P. K. Banerjee: No doubt he is the best striker we have had in the past 20 years. I will not like to compare him with the players from my generation but he is the icon of Indian football today, a real gem. I found him to be a good motivator, very balanced, a leader who loves to fight. He is not a game maker but I find him a lethal striker. His job is to score goals and he does it beautifully. He is so adept at positional play and is always cool. Look at his movements on the field and you will know what I mean by saying cool. He is a team man and always gives his very best. He never stops fighting even when the team is leading. Not many have this quality. He is a wonderful gentleman and I feel very proud of him.

Syed Nayeemuddin: I will call him lazy but with tremendous talent. I know people talk of our differences but I have never had anything personal against him. I always had his interest at heart. I wanted him to achieve greater heights. I know he likes to rest a lot but then without working hard you can’t improve. He is a terrific player no doubt but I think he should have attained a greater status than what he enjoys today. I used to compare him with (Hidetoshi) Nakata. He was that good. He was an effective sweeper striker, an all-round player. The fact that he has served the game for so long should make him one of the most revered figures of Indian football. He is still good.

Bhaskar Ganguly: What a deceptive player. He can create a goal from nowhere. That’s his greatest quality. I have not seen many deceptive players like him. He is so lethal in the penalty area. Is not football about scoring goals? That is what he excels in. He is undoubtedly the icon of Indian football and a player any team would be proud to possess. His discipline to serve the game is unmatched really. I have always watched him with great interest. I don’t know how I would have tackled his scoring abilities but I know he would have been as successful in my era as he is today. He can beat any goalkeeper with his skills. He is a very dangerous striker.

Subhash Bhowmick: He is a gem and a true icon of Indian football. I have said it million times that Bhaichung is a rare talent. His dedication and loyalty to Indian football is unquestionable. He has been a unique player and served the team with selfless devotion. He is fast, strong and courageous. His contributions speak for Bhaichung. He has been around for 17 years. I can say he is one of the most dangerous strikers when inside the box. He may not be a great game maker but he is a typical box player. Hats off to him!

Manoranjan Bhattacharya: Easily the most dangerous striker. As a defender I can say that he is deceptive and has this ability to grab even half a chance. He is so very good inside the box. That he has played for such a long period shows his sincerity and spirit. I think these are the most important qualities a sportsman must have and Bhaichung is one of the most trusted players of Indian football. You can always bank on him. His self-belief is his strong point. He can carry the team on his shoulders. What I like the most about him is his passion for the game.

Bruno Coutinho: He is a dear friend. I value my friendship with him. He has been doing a wonderful job for Indian football. As you grow old, you invite criticism more often but in Bhaichung’s case it has been the other way round. He has earned lavish praise even at this age for his speed and skill. That he is still going strong speaks for the man’s amazing dedication. As opponents we used to study him but could rarely shackle him. He was extremely quick inside the box. I remember I would pass the ball into the box from the corner and he would emerge from nowhere to receive it. He is a superb man to know, very gentle, a bit shy, and very polite.

Sukhwinder Singh: Honestly, it would be difficult find the words to describe this colossal figure from Indian football. He is such a lethal player. I know people say he is good inside the box but I say he is a complete player. To be good inside the box requires extraordinary sharpness. He has it. He is very explosive when he has the ball with him inside the box. Look at the header he scored (against Sri Lanka in the Nehru Cup). It was as perfect as you can expect. His timing and the ability to stay in the air was breathtaking. I have seen him score some astonishing goals. He has the leadership qualities to control the team and I can walk miles to watch him play.

I. M. Vijayan: He is my younger brother and I feel proud when he calls me `Bhaiyya’. What should I say of Bhaichung. He is a great player. I have not seen anyone like him in Indian football. I respect him a lot for his achievements. What tremendous skills he shows when inside the box. If I was a defender, I know I would have struggled to catch him. I can say if anyone of us had the ability to play overseas it was Bhaichung. We played together a lot and knew each other inside-out. He really knew how to use the ball. He is easily the best Indian footballer I have seen.

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