Memorable swansong

Captain Phillip Lahm presenting a specially designed Bayern Munich jersey, with Baichung Bhutia's name and number (15) etched on its back, to the veteran Indian striker was symbolic of the friendly nature of the contest. Though India lost Bhutia's farewell match 4-0, it was an “opportunity of a lifetime” for the home team players. By Y. B. Sarangi.

Will it be a full Bayern Munich squad with all its top stars? Is Jupp Heynckes going to field his best line-up? Will (Thomas) Muller and (Franck) Ribery play the full length of the match?

Prior to Bayern landing in New Delhi, a palpable sense of disbelief had ruled the discussions among the keen followers of football in the capital. It was justified since Delhi has not been fortunate enough like Kolkata to host international stars at regular intervals. The last time the city witnessed a notable club in action was when the Dutch outfit, PSV Eindhoven, came here in 1991 to take part in the Super Soccer Series, organised by Tata. However, PSV's visit had lost some of its gloss because the team's Brazilian star Romario had backed out.

The first time Delhi had experienced the thrill of watching foreign footballers in action was when teams from Iran, North Korea and the USSR participated in the DCM tournament in 1968.

“But nothing can be compared to Bayern Munich's visit. This is the biggest team with several elite players (to have visited India). No doubt, it was the greatest moment,” said the well-known football commentator Novy Kapadia.

The buzz was doing the rounds when the Bavarians landed in Doha and held a week-long camp there. Their trip to India was a packed schedule. Nevertheless it was altogether a different experience for the players who were in for a ‘culture shock'.

“There was an understandable culture shock for the Bayern stars after they landed in a nation with the second largest population in the world before transferring by bus at a crawl through the permanently jammed streets of Delhi in the direction of their team hotel,” reported Bayern Munich's official website.

“The initial impressions were thrilling, fascinating and undeniably foreign, with a dash of surprise and even shock too. Poverty was ever-present, with dilapidated tin huts, open fires, folks openly living on the streets and drying their clothes there, skinny children, and cows running free: the cow is treated as sacred by Hindus,” the website went on.

Despite all the shocks they had during their brief visit to India, the Bayern players would not forget the warm welcome accorded to them on arrival. A pity that the venue (Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium) was in such a shabby state, with bird droppings ‘decorating' the dirty seats and filthy toilets leaving a nauseating impression on the paying public. Some things just don't change in Indian sport and this lack of sensitivity towards the spectators struck a jarring note at the Nehru Stadium.

If the cordial reception was expected, the packed press conference on the eve of the match and the 35,000-strong crowd that thronged the stadium the following day pleasantly surprised the German side.

On January 10, the atmosphere at the stadium was electrifying and the enthusiasm of the crowd was heartening. Despite the lack of any noteworthy build-up and marketing, the response of the die-hard football fans was admirable.

“We had friends boasting about going to places like Old Trafford and the Allianz arena! But to watch the top players fly into our own backyard was an experience from another planet!” noted Nikkilesh Anand, a Manchester United fan.

The prospect of seeing the Bayern Munich stars in flesh and blood and watching their own home-grown legend play in his final international match was motivation enough for the fans who came in large numbers braving the biting cold. “The only reason why we travelled so far up north — apart from witnessing Baichung's farewell match — was to see some of the top footballers from Germany at close quarters. To eventually end up standing right next to the German captain Phillip Lahm and then get his autograph was absolutely the stuff of dreams,” said Naren Madangopal, who came all the way from Chennai to be part of the moment.

“Getting autographs from Lahm, Ribery and Muller was the highlight and an experience I would cherish forever. I am glad I was present to pay respect to the most decorated player of Indian football — Baichung,” said another football lover Karthik R. K.

The National Anthem set the mood and skipper Lahm presenting a specially designed Bayern Munich jersey, with Bhutia's name and number (15) etched on its back, to the veteran Indian striker was symbolic of the friendly nature of the contest. As India's coach Savio Medeira said, there was no comparison between the two teams. However, the Indians, who conceded four goals in the first half, made a spirited effort after the change of ends to prevent the Bundesliga giant from finding the mark in the last 45 minutes. It was a big morale-booster for the home players, who were constantly cheered for their fine attempts by the knowledgeable crowd.

Bhutia, who returned to the bench after spending 84 minutes on the pitch, received a standing ovation from the crowd.

“It felt like Kolkata,” said someone in the crowd as people were rushing out of the stadium after the game.

There were a few compliments for the Indian players, who exhibited a big heart and rose to the occasion. Dutch forward Arjen Robben praised them for their speed and fitness.

Despite the huge difference in standard between the two sides, Bayern Munich coach Heynckes liked the host's skill in defence.

As Medeira put it, it was an “opportunity of lifetime” for the Indian players and they made it a memorable affair. “Whatever be the score-line, it will give them a lot of confidence,” he said.