By Avalok Langer
THE STADIUM was a blur of painted faces, shirtless men wildly dancing around open fires with the occasional flare shooting into the sky. Draped in green and maroon, the large man slowly stood up. He paused to look around. Raising his hands, he shouted “Mohun Bagan” as he beat his drum “tut-ta-tut-tut”, “Mohun Bagan tut-ta-tut-tut”. The call had been made and 80,000 of the Bagan faithful replied in unison: “Mohun Bagan tut-tatut- tut, Mohun Bagan tut-ta-tut-tut, Mohun Bagan tut-ta-tut-tut”. If you think football is dead in India, you have to watch a match in West Bengal. Seated on the third tier of the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, the Mecca of Indian football, I prepared for what would be a day I would never forget — the 2008 Federation Cup final between Dempo and Mohun Bagan. The day I saw Bhaichung Bhutia play.
To be honest, I wasn’t a Bhutia fan. Not because I disliked his game, but because having grown up in New Delhi, I found myself completely disconnected from the world of Indian football. I knew Bhaichung Bhutia, the name, but having never seen him play, I couldn’t honestly call myself a fan. But as I watched the Fed Cup final, I found myself mesmerised by the ‘Sikkimese Sniper’ and I still remember the moment I started to consider myself a fan. He was tackled in the opponent’s 18-yard box. Falling to the ground, he lost the ball. He jumped up in a flash, chased down the Dempo defender, positioned himself in front of him, cutting off his passing channels and stole the ball back. In that moment, I had been converted.For me, Bhutia went from being the smiling ‘poster boy’ of Indian football to a mercurial striker carrying a sport on his shoulders.
BY NOW, we all know of the star power of Bhaichung Bhutia and having carried Indian football on and off the field for the better part of two decades, his retirement marks the end of an era. But what makes Bhutia special?
While experts and players alike agree that Bhutia is not the most talented striker to have played for India, his ability to think on his feet, innovate and his never-say-die attitude make him the legend that he is. “He is a thinking player,” says Mayanti Langer, a sports presenter, “What made him special was that he was the opportunistic striker, waiting to jump on the ball and score, but you could also place him behind two strikers as a playmaker. He was a visionary and would always lift his head and see who else can score. In this way, he has nurtured Sunil Chhetri. That’s what makes him special, his selflessness.”
Every time Bhutia got the ball, there was an expectation of greatness. You sat on the edge of your seat thinking, “This will be a Bhaichung moment.” I remember watching the India-Syria league match in the 2009 Nehru Cup. Dwarfed by the Syrian defence, Bhutia had been out-muscled in the entire game. A gentleman sitting next to me turned from a fan to an expert and explained how Bhutia was past his prime and should retire. Mid-sentence, Bhutia got the ball in the box, turned, beat the 6’4’’ defender marking him and tapped the ball into the goal from an impossible angle. As the stadium erupted, the man shouted, “See I told you Bhaichung would do it.” Perhaps that’s what made him special, his ability to create magic out of nothing.
Indian football legend and Bhutia’s former strike partner IM Vijayan couldn’t agree more. “I remember it was the 1993 Durand Cup semi-final, East Bengal versus the Border Security Force. The match was forced into extra time and a 16-year-old Bhutia walked on to the pitch. A lofty cross came into the box, out of nowhere; Bhutia leapt up, did a bicycle kick and smashed the ball into the goal. As the player celebrated, the stadium went silent for what seemed like a lifetime and then the crowd erupted. It was absolutely brilliant to see this young boy win the match for his team.”
Bhutia’s stint in England was a defining moment in his career, but many question his choice of club and league. Bury FC was a second-division club in North England. They played a very physical brand of football on wet and cold conditions, not the perfect setting for Bhutia. “It was a difficult experience,” he admits, “adjusting to the freezing cold and the football style was tough. It was very frustrating, but I learnt a lot. I became very professional as a player, learnt the importance of hard work and returned with a new mindset.”
After Bury FC, Bhutia learnt the value of the media. He appeared on sports shows and even won a dance reality contest
Though luck did not favour Bhutia in England, he came back a changed player. He learnt the importance of working out and perseverance. He instilled a sense of professionalism into his teammates that had been lacking in Indian football till then. Former teammate Alvito D’Cunha vouches for his unquestionable work ethic. “Bhaichung motivates himself, he never had to be pushed because he never slacked. Renedy (Singh) and I would often train with him. We would take breaks to go home between the session. But Bhutia would stay on and train, his drive and dedication was enviable.”
His experience in Bury changed Bhutia’s approach off the field as well. Having played in England, he grew in stature and brought a sense of glamour to a sport in desperate need of it. He learnt the importance of the media and capitalised on endorsement, dabbled in punditry on ESPN and Ten Sports and even won a dance reality show. He is the only footballer to create a larger-than-life image and garner a national fan base. Mayanti attributes this quality to the fact that “Bhaichung knows how to interact with the media, how to be a star and yet remain connected to his roots. He has glamourised Indian football and the lifestyle that goes along with it. But all the while, he maintains a perfect balance between Bhaichung the superstar and Bhaichung the guy who just wants to go to his Manipur house with his wife to eat momos. This is why the football fraternity loves him.”
As fans, we know Bhutia the player and Bhutia the star, but only a special few have been privy to Bhutia the captain. His skill on the field and his magnetic personality off it made him the ideal leader. A team man, he would go door to door before every game and tell his team that they could win, they could do it. “From the time he entered the dressing room, he would pump us up. Most of the time, we would win the match in the dressing room itself,” says D’Cunha.
Being India’s football icon, Bhutia has played a special role in motivating and nurturing the next generation of Indian players. Twenty-four-year-old Indian defender Gouramangi Singh has had the privilege of sharing a dressing room with Bhutia and admits that he is still a Bhutia fan first and a teammate second. “Like many youngsters in India, he has inspired me. What I admire about him was that no matter the score, he would never give up or relax, he would just keep pushing himself and the team.”
IN THE past 10 years, Indian football has come a long way, maybe not in the way of rankings but in terms of training infrastructure, international exposure and coaching systems for the national side. An ageing Bhutia was able to lead India to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Had he been 10 years younger, at his peak and playing in the present scenario, who knows where he would have reached? “I think if I was young today, I would have had more opportunities to play internationally. Those days nobody had played abroad and no one knew how the system there worked. But now we have more exposure and we understand the system,” says Bhutia.
‘If I was young today, I’d have more chances to play abroad. Back then, nobody knew the system,’ says Bhutia
Today’s generation of footballers have inherited a modernised system that Bhutia helped create. The players are exposed to opportunities and techniques that have en-abled the likes of Chhetri to play in America’s Major League Soccer, Gouramangi to be nurtured into a solid defender by a progressive club set-up at Churchill Brothers and the 20-year-old Jeje Lalpekhlua to travel to the West Indies to play international friendlies. “Had Bhutia been 10 years younger in today’s football environment, he could have played in a different European league like the Dutch Eredivisie that would have suited his style of football. That would have changed the course of his career,” believes Novy Kapadia, an Indian football expert.
After over a 100 international caps, playing with the likes of Didier Drogba, Zinedine Zidane, Gennaro Gattuso, and having etched his name in the history of Indian sport, what is next for the star striker? For Bhutia, home beckons. A staunch advocate for improving grassroots-level football in India, he has set up Sikkim United FC in his home state and has established a youth football academy in New Delhi. Larsing Ming, the general secretary of Shillong Lajong FC feels that “Bhutia has inspired the youth in the Northeast to take up football professionally. He has shown that it is possible to break through at the national level and make a mark. He bridged the gap between the Northeast and the mainland, and that has been his greatest contribution to Northeastern football.
WHILE THE converted wait with bated breath for the next messiah, the truth is that there will probably never be another Bhaichung Bhutia. Mayanti believes that “maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We should not see it as a failure of Indian football but as a compliment to the man and the player that he was”. While some worry about the void his exit will create, Nigeria-born football legend Chima Okorie turns to the youth, “His retire ment means a young player will now have a chance to don the national colours.” As young players like Chhetri, Jeje, Gouramangi and Subrata Pal begin to etch a name for themselves, the burden to carry Indian football has shifted onto them.
For the ever-positive Bhutia, there is no question of a void, “As long as there is football in India, players will come and go. We have to look to the future.” These young boys in blue are the future stars of Indian football.
With inputs from Shonali Ghosal
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.