`This triumph will infuse confidence'

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

BAICHUNG BHUTIA is a phenomenon in Indian football. Having already completed a decade of association with top-level football, the diminutive striker from Sikkim has accomplished feats quite tall and never stops springing surprises. He became the first footballer from the country to play in Europe — joining England's second division club Bury FC — and is now toying with prospects for his second foreign assignment.

The ASEAN club championship triumph re-established him as one of the best strikers in this part of the continent and apart from the title to his "favourite" club — East Bengal — has also fetched an offer from the Malaysian club, Perak FC. The club, impressed by Bhutia's goal scoring abilities in the ASEAN meet that made him the highest scorer of the tournament — has offered to have him on loan for two months. Bhutia, given a go-ahead by the club, is upbeat about his coming assignment and hopes he will get requisite permission from the national federation.

His rise to prominence has been quite astounding. Becoming the best player in the Subroto Cup in 1992 was his first step towards stardom. He represented the Sports Authority India, Gangtok, and immediately caught the attention of the hawkish `scouts' of East Bengal. His superlative skills in the Asian under-16 qualifiers enhanced the resolve of the club, which signed him in the very next season. He became the highest goal-scorer in the Calcutta Super Division League for East Bengal in 1995. His best in club football came in 1996 when playing alongside the likes of I. M. Vijayan, Jo Paul Anchery and Carlton Chapman. He spearheaded the attack for Punjab team JCT Mills — which he joined from East Bengal — and helped it lift the inaugural National Football League title. He was also the highest scorer of the tournament. This fetched him the country's "Player of the Year title" in the same year. He returned to East Bengal in 1997 and remained there for two seasons.

The year 1999 was significant as it brought a lot of international acclaim for him including the `Asian Player of the Month (May)' award after he became the best player of the SAFF Cup held in Kathmandu. He received the Arjuna Award in the same year. Following some unsuccessful trials with the English Premiership club Aston Villa and first division clubs Fulham FC and West Bromwich Albion, he found success with second division club Bury FC and joined it late in 1999 and continued there for three seasons. He met with moderate success with Bury as injuries and turmoil in the club administration kept him down. He returned to India in 2002 and joined Mohun Bagan for the first time and also started his campaign for the country. He was one of the key members influencing India lift the LG Cup in Vietnam, which ended more than three decades of title drought for the country. He, however, could not excel much playing for Bagan as an injury sustained in India's Busan Asian Games campaign later in the year grounded him for the rest of the season.

He opted for his old club East Bengal — which went for him on the requisition of its coach Subhas Bhowmick — this season and there by began his second revival, which has been astounding so far.

Despite having achieved so much so far, Bhutia rated the ASEAN Club championship triumph as something really great to cherish.

"The ASEAN club championship triumph being the first is always something to remember and I will cherish that all through my life. LG Cup is something very auspicious for me as I won it both playing for the country and now the club." he said.

He turned philosophical weighing the implication of the triumph on the country's soccer scenario. "I cannot just now say the ASEAN championship success is a turning point in Indian football but it surely is a very positive happening as it will infuse confidence in the present players and at the same time bring up a feeling in the younger generation that we are good enough to do something in the international circuit. This will bring some change in the general attitude of both who play and who follow the sport.

Speaking on the reasons behind the team's success he said, "The ASEAN success resulted owing to the hard work put in by all of us — the coach, the physical trainer, the players and even the club malis (gardeners). The coach (Subhas Bhowmick) stood out among all of us, doing much of the hard work. Apart from coaching us and scheduling our training, he arranged for a very good hotel and also got the club to hire an international physical trainer (Kevin Jackson).

"The coach showed enough foresight, arranging for top-class fitness training for us. We worked hard earlier too but never had a systematic and scientific approach to that. Kevin (Jackson) prescribed the right kind of weight training individually and it did wonders increasing our physical ability. More than the month's hard training, the team also stayed together which bettered the communication and faith in each other and thereby doubled the team spirit," he added.

Bhutia had good words for the federation. "The All India Football Federation has brought about a lot of changes. (Alberto) Colaco has been working very hard to better the conditions and he is one who genuinely has the betterment of Indian football in his heart." He went on to add, "The marketing of the sport has to be spruced up. Let's not forget there's genuine interest for the sport in India and it's important for us to work systematically on its development. With the Doordarshan showing matches live, people had a first hand account of what we are capable of and the Federation should capitalise on this new wave of confidence."

As a recipe for better results internationally he said, "We have to play more international tournaments. India's ranking in FIFA is down because we do not play many international tournaments. We are not a bad team but it is our performance in the international arena — both at the national and at clubs levels — which will bring recognition for Indian football. If we do not play outside we cannot earn points."

Before signing off he took a peep into East Bengal's future assignment — the AFC Champions League — scheduled later this year. "The AFC Champions League will be different. We met with success in the ASEAN meet because we had the chance to prepare during `off-season' but the AFC tournament will be in the middle of the season, so it will be a different story. We will have to work harder but I am hopeful we will do well there too.