The Beautiful Game – A reoccurring exclusive where fans talk about their fondest/most unforgettable memories relating to football. Today, EADF writer Sivan John recollects his first memory of India’s original football superstar Baichung Bhutia and traces his glittering career.
In his book Barefoot to Boots, renowned journalist and commentator Novy Kapadia mentioned that the North East region of India is the country’s rising sun in football. To my limited knowledge, I only knew that Bengal and Goa were the hotbeds. But the current trend suggests that many of India’s modern-day footballing heroes hail from the land of the seven sisters.
There is no surprise that the current football superstar in India Sunil Chetri traces his heritage all the way back to the North East. But long before El Capitano went on social media to sound the call of Bharat’s Army to bring on the cavalry and support the national team, there was another name that dominated Indian football.
For me, it all started back in March 1996, during the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup qualifier in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As hosts, we were grouped together with Indonesia and India. Only the group winner is guaranteed a place in Asia’s premier competition. On paper, this didn’t seem like a tough assignment for the Malaysian squad.
The Indian delegation arrived shorthanded as they couldn’t bring their full squad. I wish I knew what the reason was, but unfortunately, mankind had not entered the social media age back then. Despite that, one player’s name seemed to entice the Malaysian media during their stay here. A diminutive figure with a typical Gurkha army look, Baichung Bhutia was Indian football’s golden boy. Having won the most valuable player award in India, the Sikkim Sniper was the Blue Tigers prime danger-man. It was reported that several local sides including Selangor and Kuala Lumpur were hoping to suit up with the Sikkim born lad.
A friend of mine did suggest that we go watch the match between Malaysia and India. Unfortunately, with school the next day, I was barred from going for the match. My only hope was listening to whatever commentary that was available on the radio. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any either. I had to wait until the mid-night news to catch the scoreline.
That night, Malaysia had to win by at least 7 goals. In their earlier fixture against Indonesia, both teams had to settle for a goalless draw. When an undermanned India took on Indonesia, the latter demolish them by seven goals to one. This is partly because Bhutia had to be in goal after their only keeper got injured.
It was all smooth sailing for Malaysia when they took on India. With 15 minutes to play, they were leading 5-1. The prospect of scoring a few more goals wasn’t out of reach. That was until the 78th minute when Bhutia scored an amazing goal that pretty much ended Malaysia’s chance. With a better goal difference, Indonesia progress to the main tournament held in the Emirates.
It’s a shame that Bhutia couldn’t unleash his full potential in those two matches in Kuala Lumpur. This is the reason why he couldn’t strike a deal with a local team back then. Or else I would have the privilege to see him action week in week out in front of my own backyard. But his time in Malaysia would eventually come.
As a person who likes to view the beautiful game from a futbol mundial perspective, Baichung Bhutia has always been synonymous with Indian football. With limited coverage given to Asian football back then, I couldn’t follow his career progress back in India. It was only on the international stage, that I got a glimpse of his exploits.
This may sound crazy but Baichung Bhutia was my first ever signing when I started playing Championship Manager 2 (season 1997/98). In my early demented days with the legendary personal computer game, I bought him for Fiorentina. I had him to form a three-man attack alongside Gabriel Batistuta and Singapore legend Fandi Ahmad. Not too bad right?
When I did start taking Championship Manager more seriously, I used to sign Bhutia for lower division English sides such as Kidderminster or Macclesfield. The idea of an Indian footballer signing for the European side in real life was no easy to comprehend back then. Little did we know, Bhutia was already plotting a European adventure.
Baichung Bhutia was the original trailblazer of Indian football. In a country where cricket and hockey takes a large chunk of the cake, he was football’s first true superstar. In the first few years of his professional career, he had already established himself as the country’s top player winning honours mostly with East Bengal.
He was making more money and striking expensive endorsement deals as compared to his peers. Bhutia was the ultimate pin-up boy of Indian football. With his popularity, both on and off the pitch he was inspiring young kids to kick a ball and pursue football. That is no easy feat when you live in a country where cricket is worshipped like a religion
But deep down, all that meant nothing if there is little he can do to uplift the standard of the game in India. The country still remains as the reigning powerhouse in the sub-continent. But compared to that of rest of Asia, it is far behind from the golden era of the 1950s and 60s.
This is where Bhutia made a resolution to take his game beyond the comfort zone of India. He packed his bag to the birthplace of football, England. He had trials with West Brom and Aston Villa but didn’t manage to impress.
The former Huddersfield Town manager Neil Warnock decided to take a chance on him by signing Bhutia for Bury FC. Bhutia penned a three year deal with The Shakers in September 1999. At first, it seemed that he might have trouble gaining his work permit but a couple of local MPs chipped in to ensure there was no problem
On the 2nd of October, Bhutia made his debut in a home match against Cardiff City. He became the first Indian since Mohammad Salim to play for a European side. Bhutia made an instantaneous impact after coming from the bench for Ian Lawson as he provided the assist for Darren Bullock to score Bury’s second goal of the game.
Life in England would have its perks and challenges for a player like Bhutia. Second Division football was very different as compared to the cosmopolitan Premier League. Thus a player of Bhutia’s distinction would be considered as somewhat “exotic” not just for Bury but the Football League itself.
Often factors like contrasting climates and culture can prove to be much for any footballer who is unfamiliar with that environment. However, Bhutia wasn’t going to quit on this easily. He was determined to make this work. After all, he knew there was too much at stake not just for him but also for Indian football.
It wasn’t just millions of his countrymen from thousands of miles away who were following Bhutia’s exploit in England. His presence in Bury had a knock on effect on a certain demographic. Ethnic Indian people in Britain were also swept by the tidal waves of Bhutia-mania during his tenure with the Greater Manchester side.
For the English Football Association, this was the major breakthrough that they had been looking for. For a long time, they had been trying to develop and raise football’s profile in the sub-continent where people tend to lean towards cricket. With Baichung Bhutia on board, they found the perfect ambassador for their cause.
Bhutia made history in April that season when he became the first Indian to score in the English football league. He rifled home a near perfect volley with his left foot from a corner against Chesterfield. Bhutia would go on to score a couple of more goals in 37 appearances for Bury. He was released by the club in early August 2001.
Among the reason why Bhutia couldn’t assert himself in Gigg Lane was that he had been in and out of the team due to national team duty. Remember this was a time when there was no such thing as “International break”. Despite only making limited first-team appearances, Bhutia took home much more than he could ask for during those two years with Bury. He left England with the knowledge he gained from the level of professionalism in England and always tried to implement it when he was with the national team.
How much did Bury got out of Baichung Bhutia is a matter of debate. But the one club that got the most out of him was East Bengal. He played a big part of his career for the iconic Red and Gold brigade. It was East Bengal that gave Bhutia his professional debut. Thus he made it clear when the time came for him to hang his boots, he would do it with them.
If we had to pick one game in which Bhutia weld his place in the hearts of East Bengal faithful? Which game would it be? The answer to that question lies in the match against cross-town rival Mohun Bagan during the 1997 KBL Confederation Cup semi-final. The contest between both teams dubbed as the Kolkata Derby is on par with any of the other great derbies in world football.
There was already plenty of tension in the build-up to this game, Flames has been fanned by Bagan’s coach Amal Duta. He was apparently using the local media to contempt East Bengal, particularly Bhutia as part of his pre-match mind games. Bhutia was unfazed by Duta’s words. Rather than feeling vexed about the situation, he was pumped up for the match.
In front of a record-breaking crowd of 130,000 at the iconic Salt Lake stadium, the stage was set for Bhutia. He couldn’t ask for a better stage to cement his status as an East Bengal legend. He didn’t score one or two, instead netting a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. The demolition against Bagan forced Duta to eat his own words. Keeping up with his trailblazing ethos, Bhutia became the first player to score a hat-trick in the history of the Kolkata Derby.
Now imagine this, Luis Figo being held in high regards by both Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? Not happening right? Let us not forget that Bhutia also had a couple of stints with Mohun Bagan. That being said Bhutia has accomplished a rare feat for a footballer. He was highly respected by sets of passionate crosstown rivals – East Bengal & Mohun Bagan.
I guess this has a lot do with his attitude and how he carries himself. As mentioned many times, on the field, he is a very hardworking and an inspirational footballer who wants to get the best of out his teammates. When he is not on the pitch, he is one of the most humble and kind people you will ever come across. Bhutia’s personality had always endeared him to the supporters of any team he played for.
I remember asking some fans of Malaysian side Perak FA what they remember of Bhutia’s short stint with them. The replies have always been glowingly positive. He scored 4 goals in 8 matches for them during the 2003 Malaysia Cup campaign.
However, his sojourn in Malaysia didn’t have a happy ending. Perak lost to Sabah 1-3 in the semi-finals in which he missed several opportunities to score. He took it upon himself rather than blaming anyone. Bhutia described himself as the “piece of villain” in that defeat.
Bhutia’s crowning moment in an India shirt came in 2008 at the AFC Challenges Cup. The competition was designed by the AFC for lower ranked nations. Bhutia inspired his country to go all the way to the Final. He even managed to score in the 4-1 win over Tajikistan. As a result of winning this trophy, India earned an automatic qualification for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
Knowing at the age of 35 this could be last outing, he would have to give his all to take part in Asia’s premier tournament. Unfortunately, injuries had curtailed his professional in the final the final years. While it was amicable for India’s coach Bob Houghton to include him in the 23-man squad. Bhutia’s appearance was only limited to just 12 minutes in the final group match against South Korea.
He announced his retirement from international duty in late 2011. To ensure that he was given a lavish send-off, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) had arranged a farewell match against Bayern Munich. Just to be able to share the pitch with Philip Lahm and Arjen Robben was a moment to savour for Bhutia. He left the field to a standing ovation from the people who attended the game at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi.
Bhutia spent the next few years helping develop United Sikkim, a football club which he founded. He made his final bow from professional football in 2015, as expected with East Bengal. The last few years Bhutia has been actively involved in politics. He joined the Trinamool Congress in 2014 until he parted ways with them four years later.
Bhutia has never shied away from using his influence and popularity for a good cause. In 2008, he refused to take part in the Olympic torch run as part of his solidarity towards the Tibetan Independence movement in China, who were hosting the Olympics that year. The Chinese government had been orchestrating a massive crackdown on the Tibetan people and this was his way of protesting and raising a voice against the Chinese government.
But football was never far off from Bhutia’s mind. He knew retirement didn’t have to mean detaching himself completely from the game he loved so much. Bhutia has launched his own football school for the promotion of the game at the grassroots level in 2010. The Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools was inaugurated in association with the Portuguese academy football run by Carlos Queiroz and Nike.
In his 20 years of service to Indian football, Bhutia has accumulated many accolades. This includes the Arjuna and Padma Sri award for outstanding accomplishments in sports. In 2014, he was inducted in the Asian Football Hall of Fame alongside other luminaries such as Soh Chin Aun, Ali Daei, Myung-bo Hong, Sami Jaber and Harry Kewell.
Indian football is currently undergoing a new renaissance. This includes many initiatives taken to elevate the standard of the game here. India has witnessed a resurgence in football fandom in recent years. One can safely say that the imprints left by the Sikkim Sniper since the early 90s have had a huge role to play in the upliftment of the footballing landscape in India.
For more pieces by Sivan John, click here
Image 1 via India Today
Bury Image via The72
East Bengal Image via Mid-Day
Bayern Image via Sportskeeda