Needless controversy

The best part of my career has been with East Bengal and I wish to end it with the team that has helped me become what I am today, says Baichung Bhutia.-Pics: PTI

The Baichung Bhutia issue has re-ignited the feud between traditional rivals, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. And quite interestingly, it has very little to do with football. By Amitabha Das Sharma.

His failure to turn up for an unofficial exhibition match has landed India’s most successful football player in trouble. The Indian captain and the country’s only footballer to have played in Europe, Baichung Bhutia is facing what is perhaps the biggest storm of his career as his club, Mohun Bagan, has handed him a six-month suspension for “recalcitrance”.

Mohun Bagan risked collateral damages in challenging the iconic status of Bhutia. The fallout was obvious: the decision to suspend Bhutia re-ignited the traditional feud between the oldest rivals in Indian football, East Bengal standing up as a benefactor for the striker against Mohun Bagan’s act of “villainy”. The upcoming season has already drawn enough heat from the Bhutia issue. And quite interestingly, the controversy has very little to do with football.

Many are of the view that Bhutia’s crime did not merit such severe punishment, for the match he was supposed to play was only a dead season friendly against a local selection in Jalpaiguri, a little-known town in North Bengal, and it hardly deserved the presence of the charismatic striker. But the Mohun Bagan officials, who had promised that the iconic striker would take part in the match, were left red-faced before the host when Bhutia skipped the game citing personal reasons. This, apparently, led to an ego clash between Mohun Bagan, the oldest club in Asia, and one of India’s most celebrated football players.

Following the Jalpaiguri imbroglio, Mohun Bagan dug up the past and made a number of allegations against the player. The club alleged that it lost out in the title race of the I-League, India’s premier club tournament, because Bhutia had turned recalcitrant in the later stages of the league. It all started with Mohun Bagan shooting off a well-publicised show-cause notice, asking the player to explain why he missed the vital practice session before the I-League matches and instead participated in a reality dance-show hosted by a popular television channel.

“Baichung is an icon in Indian football. He enjoyed some privileges in the club but no one is bigger than the institution. We may have taken a late step, but it is better to be late than never,” said Anjan Mitra, Mohun Bagan’s secretary.

Bhutia ignored the 48-hour deadline he was given to respond to the show-cause notice and then rebounded with equal intensity against the club. He declared that Mohun Bagan had acted irresponsibly by publicising what should have been handled in-house and decided to end his association with the club. Though both the club and the player had earlier agreed to extend their contract for another season, Bhutia decided to end it as he was exasperated by the way Mohun Bagan questioned his “commitment” to the game.

“After all this I do not have the inspiration to appear for the club anymore,” Bhutia said. “This is an example of mismanagement. The situation could have been easily avoided if the officials had acted with discretion and allowed me to explain first before making it public,” he added.

And joining in the fray was the National coach Bob Houghton who called Mohun Bagan’s action “inane”. Recalling his long international coaching career, the Englishman said in a statement that he was astonished by the way Mohun Bagan questioned the dedication of the player. “To question the commitment of any player who has played at the very top level in his country for 16 years and achieved what Baichung has internationally is truly inane,” Houghton said.

The coach, who has always been critical of how the Indian clubs function, questioned the unprofessional attitude of Mohun Bagan. This only made matters worse as Mohun Bagan dashed off a protest letter to the All India Football Federation stating that the National coach had no say in the internal affairs of the club.

Meanwhile Bhutia started negotiations with his old club, East Bengal, as Mohun Bagan was planning its next course of action against the player, who had sent a belated letter to the club making counter-allegations against it. He also sought his release from Mohun Bagan.

The player’s iconic status was underlined by the fact that he won the reality dance show riding on popularity votes. His celebrations, however, were quickly doused as Mohun Bagan announced that it was suspending Bhutia on disciplinary grounds.

Mohun Bagan said that the explanation given by Bhutia was unsatisfactory and hence the club’s executive committee decided to suspend him for six months. The club accused the player of ignoring its interest and participating in the dance show. Bhutia maintained that he did everything with the knowledge of the club’s officials, but Mohun Bagan refused to acknowledge the verbal permission the player had apparently obtained from the officials.

Baichung Bhutia with his fans after signing a contract with East Bengal.-

The club’s decision has put Bhutia’s future in a quandary.

Bhutia called the suspension illegal and roped in a renowned lawyer to put across his point. Quoting article 22A (a) of the Indian Football Association’s (the local body) constitution, which relates to a player’s suspension, Bhutia’s lawyer Usha Nath Banerjee said Mohun Bagan’s actions contained a lot of flaws and thus the suspension decision can be challenged.

Bhutia is yet to challenge Mohun Bagan’s decision in court as he is waiting to hear from the state body, IFA, to whom he has appealed against the suspension. The IFA is scheduled to decide on the issue at its meeting on July 9.

Bhutia, who is free to play for his country, has committed himself to national duty while vowing to fight against the injustice meted out to him by Mohun Bagan. He has also signed a contract with East Bengal hoping that his suspension will be revoked and he will be able to secure his release from Mohun Bagan in time.

“The best part of my career has been with East Bengal and I wish to end it with the team that has helped me become what I am today,” Bhutia said. Incidentally, he had left East Bengal in 2006 after a dispute, vowing never to return. “There are problems everywhere but what matters in the end is how the problems are handled. I had problems with East Bengal but the officials here have handled it well, so I’m back with them,” Bhutia said.