Indian football fans saw off their favourite star Baiching Bhutia, who played for the last time in Indian colours against German giants Bayern Munich at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
What Sachin Tendulkar is to Indian cricket is what this Sikkimese Sniper, as he is fondly called thanks to his shooting prowess on the field, is to Indian football. I M Vijayan once described him as "God`s gift to Indian football.” Even though, Indian football is currently almost invisible on the international map, the country boasts quite a few legends in their ranks. India had Neville de D`Souza, Subimal Chuni Goswami, IM Vijayan, Peter Thangaraj, but Bhutia garnered popularity and followers. He has been the face of Indian football for two decades, captaining the country for 10 years.
Baichung, who signed for East Bengal at the early age of 16, made his international debut scoring against Uzbekistan in 1995. At 19, he became the youngest ever scorer for India. Interestingly, it was the only goal in the match. It was the perfect start for his journey to the top, which has now reached the perfect finish line for the modern Indian football icon.
Bhutia became the first Indian footballer to play in the professional league in Europe when he signed a three-year contract Bury FC in England. He made his debut in October 1999 against Cardiff City. His first goal in the English league came on April 15, 2000, against Chesterfield. But a knee injury cut short his European trip and had to return home.
First major title
The first major international title since India’s bronze medal win at the 1970 Asian Games came in 2002 LG Cup under his leadership. Bhutia`s goals which came either side of half-time saw India win against Vietnam.
Afro-Asian Games did not feature all the top teams, but India faced opponents like Zimbabwe, Iran and Malaysia from the two continents. Bhutia helped India with two goals in the tournament to finish as runners-up. The two goals came in the 5–3 semi-final win over Zimbabwe.
AFC Challenge Cup
Bhutia, with three goals in the tournament, was selected as the most valuable player of the tournament in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. His two goals in their 2-1 victory against Turkmenistan helped India reach the semifinals. He also scored one in the final match against Tajikistan, which also produced a Sunil Chhetri hat-trick.
Nehru Cup success continues
India, the defending champions then, had a false start in the 2009 Nehru Cup, losing the opening game against Lebanon. For Bhutia, the tournament was of high significance. He earned his 100th cap in the match against Kyrgyzstan, the first Indian to reach this milestone. He was also adjudged as "Player of the Tournament" for his stellar performances in all of the matches, including the decider where they beat Syria in a penalty shootout.
Injuries continued to plague the striker towards the end of a tremendous career. At the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, for their first two games against Australia and Bahrain, Bhutia had to warm the bench due to injury. A cameo appearance against South Korea couldn’t save India from elimination. Shortly after the Asian Cup, he announced his retirement for India with a record of 43 goals in 107 appearances.
There couldn’t have been a better way for Baichung Bhutia to leave the field when a strong star-packed Bundesliga side Bayern Munich locked horns with the Indian national team on January 10. The Bavarians fielded the likes of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller against a 162th Indian side. Sadly, he won’t be around to play for the national team again, but will continue to play for his own club United Sikkim.