What Sachin Tendulkar is to Indian cricket is what Bhaichung Bhutia is to Indian football. But in a country where most sporting heroes are synonymous with cricket, it is Bhaichung Bhutia who by making a mark in football drove attention in the international sphere as well.
Bhaichung Bhutia is one of the most sought-after and admired footballers India has ever produced. As Bhaichung turns 41 today, let us take a look at some of the groundbreaking milestones in this footballer’s life.
Foothills to Football Field
Bhaichung Bhutia was born in a small town in Sikkim. Right from childhood, Bhaichung Bhutia had a keen interest in sports. He excelled in it and represented his school at badminton, basketball, and football. His parents who were farmers were worried about his interest in football, but his uncle Karma Bhutia encouraged him. At the age of nine, due to his sheer determination and hard work he received a scholarship from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and attended the Tashi Namgyal Academy in Gangtok.
Even before he completed his schooling, he was selected for the East Bengal team. At the age of 16, Bhutia left home to pursue his dreams. Later on, in 1995, he joined JCT Mills and in 1996, won the Indian National Football League. He became the division’s top goal scorer. In 1996 he became “Indian player of the year”
In 1997, Bhaichung Bhutia returned to East Bengal and became the first player in the history to score a hat- trick during the heated race between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
With 21 goals in 31 international appearances to his credit, he naturally became the uncrowned king of Indian football and created history by signing for Bury FC, a second division club in England. This was yet another milestone, making Bhutia the second ever Indian player to sign a contract with an English club.
Bhaichung Bhutia always shone the brightest when he played for India. He led the Indian team that won the SAFF Championship thrice and also the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 making him win “The Most Valuable Player” trophy.
By now Bhutia helped form the Football Players Association (FPAI), an association that looked after Indian footballers in India. In 2008, he was awarded the Padmashree in recognition of his achievements and contribution to Indian football.
The Last Club and Last Phase
This legend who literally changed the history of football in India by not only playing but also by encouraging talented footballers, returned one last time with East Bengal, making it the last club that he played for.
Internationally, Bhutia appeared in Asia’s biggest tournament, the AFC Asian Cup making it his last appearance on the International front. In 2010 in partnership with Carlos Queiroz, the former Manchester United assistant, and Nike, he founded the Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools in Delhi. Consequently, in August 2011, Bhutia hung up his boots and announced his retirement from international football. He played his farewell match in January 2012 against Bayern Munich.
The Sikkimese Sniper (as he is rightly called) was the first Indian athlete to refuse to be the Olympic torch bearer for India in support of the Tibetan Independence movement. This move of his earned him a lot of criticism for mixing sports with politics.
With current stars like Sunil Chhetri who is the fourth highest goal scorer in the world today, it is heartening to see a future for Indian football. Bhaichung Bhutia has been one of the most inspirational and motivating factors for budding stars who dream to make a career out of the sport. In fact, several football stars have showered numerous praises on this Arjuna Awardee. Football legend I M. Vijayan has rightly said:
“Bhutia is God’s gift to Indian football.”
One can’t help but recollect a time when Indians were oblivious to the game called football. It is Bhaichung Bhutia who drove attention to the sport through his talent and hard work in spite of not being from the states such as Kerala and Kolkata that have long nurtured young footballers. He started his journey from the small town of Tinkitam in South Sikkim and went on to play in the international arena.
The Sikkimese Sniper will forever be remembered for his contribution and stints with Indian football. Today let’s wish the TINKITAM EXPRESS a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
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