Contagiously effervescent

Bhutia on the go against Sri Lanka in the 2009 Nehru Cup.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Baichung Bhutia was a player who could inspire a crop of footballers. Once the Uzbekistan coach Rustom Akramov shifted him from being a midfielder to a striker, Bhutia, combining with I. M. Vijayan, provided a sharpness that brought several good results for India, writes S.R. Suryanarayan.

Baichung Bhutia. The name that floods one's mind with memories of all that was remarkable in Indian football in the last two decades. What would one like to remember him most for? His back-kick golden goal that brought up Bengal's 25th triumph in the Santosh Trophy (final) in Chennai in 1995? His familiar imperious runs down the flank with his close friend and able foil I. M. Vijayan close on his heels that often culminated in a spectacular goal? His role as a supreme predator, pure and simple? It is difficult to choose, for Bhutia provided many arresting moments forever etched in the mind.

In many ways Bhutia was a gift to Indian football. He had gained notice as a budding footballer on the SAI fields. Then, as a 16-year old when Bhutia came to East Bengal, Shyamal Ghosh used him sparingly in the tough league. But each time he came on, the ‘boy' became a ‘man' and took the field like a fish taking to water. That was the time, in the early 90s, when a player making a name in the Kolkata league was often bestowed with an aura.

Almost all the top Indian footballers had come from the Kolkata league, richer in experience and fame. Bhutia was no exception. Except that he went on to catch the imagination of football fans like none other.

One still remembers the day, after India had lost to Oman in a pre-Olympic home match at the Fatorda Stadium in Goa in 1995, when Bhutia was on the verge of signing a huge endorsement. The camera and lights were getting ready, but the man, who would dodge any on the football field with twinkling footwork, looked unsettled! This was his first big moment of realisation that his skills could be marketed.

A Sikkim-based watch company had signed him for an ad-shoot. Soon more big endorsements followed, something that no other footballer in India had been able to get. “But don't compare me with a cricketer. It would be like comparing me with a millionaire,” he would say with humility. But that was the reality. A talent of his kind was comparable with that of a Sachin Tendulkar in cricket. But there the comparisons had to end. Sport makes the man and football in India, Bhutia lamented, had still miles to go before it could be mentioned in the same breath as cricket.

Bhutia has inspired a lot of budding footballers.-R.V. MOORTHY

Still, to Bhutia's credit, he was a player who could inspire a crop of footballers. He was lucky that during his time he had a player like Vijayan with him. Once the Uzbekistan coach Rustom Akramov shifted him from being a midfielder to a striker, Bhutia, combining with Vijayan, provided a sharpness in the front that brought several good results for India primarily in the South Asian region.

Such was his faith in his own talent and abilities that Bhutia before long felt the urge to look beyond the Indian clubs. And thus resulted his foray to Bury club in England. More than the few matches he played for Bury that earned him praise, was the experience he gained and the realisation of where India was lacking in the sport. The critic in him slowly took root. Bury had provided an insight into what football administration was, what professional coaching was and much more. These were things he wished to share for the betterment of Indian football, but more often than not he could not find like-minded persons.

Injuries bogged him down. His knee and ankle came under the surgeons' scalpels. But his indomitable spirit saw him make stirring comebacks. Then again, his unflinching devotion to Indian football kept him going. Maybe his salad playing days are over, but there are new vistas for him to explore. Few remember his good showing on television as an expert commentator during the 2002 World Cup. Along with Lee Wellings and former England World Cup player Gary Stevens, Bhutia held his own and this brought him good feedbacks.

Bhutia now has his club, United Sikkim, and football schools to put his experience to good use. But for one with over a 100 international matches in a 16-year career, far bigger roles are surely waiting. Indian football will ever be indebted to him and football fans all over the country will have only one thing to say: “Thank you for all those glorious moments.”

FACTFILE Born: 15.12.1976 (Namchi, Sikkim) Playing Career International Appearances: 107. Goals Scored: 42.

Debut: vs. Thailand as a substitute in the Nehru Cup in Kolkata in 1995.

First Goal: vs. Uzbekistan in the Nehru Cup (Kolkata in 1995). India won 1-0.

Goals record: Holds the record of scoring 12 goals in the SAFF Cup, the highest by an Indian.

Player of the tournament: SAFF Cup in 1999 and 2005; AFC Challenge Cup, 2008; Nehru Cup, 2009.

Trophies Won: AFC Challenge Cup (2008), Nehru Cup (2007, 2009), SAFF Cup (1997, 1999, 2005), SAF Games (1995), LG Cup (2002).

Tournaments Played Pre-World Cup: 1996, 2001, 2004, 2007. Asia Cup Finals: 2011. Asia Cup Qualifiers: 1996, 2006. Pre-Olympics: 1995. Asian Games: 1998, 2002, 2006. Nehru Cup: 1995, 1997, 2007, 2009. Afro-Asian Games: 2003. LG Cup: 2002, 2004.

NB: India's captain since 2001, in all the matches that he has played.

Awards Padma Sri: 2008. Arjuna Award: 1998.