New Delhi: He started his journey in Tinkitam, a small town in South Sikkim. His prodigious talent saw him make his debut for India as a 19-year-old, in 1995. A record 107 matches and 43 goals later, the story ends at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday, in an exhibition tie against Bayern Munich.
Inevitably, with their star-studded line-up, it is the German club that has garnered all the attention, the high-profile match giving fans a chance to see their heroes in action. At the centre of it all though, is India’s football hero, Bhaichung Bhutia, who will lead the side out for the very last time.
Is it the best farewell for a man who has served the national team for 16 years, 10 of those as captain, and led from the front, playing a crucial role in all of India’s successes at the international stage, including the Nehru Cups and the AFC Challenge Cup?
India coach Savio Medeira certainly thinks so.
“What Bhaichung has given to the country cannot be compared with anybody. He deserves a farewell like this. No other team would have been fitting for a player of his stature.”
The man himself, though, is calm as ever. After all, his last appearance for India was a 15-minute cameo against South Korea in the Asia Cup about a year ago, before injury forced him to end his career in August. So Bhaichung is just glad he will get another chance to don the national colours.
“I’m not emotional, because I already retired a few months ago, but it’s definitely a great honour. I always wanted to retire playing a competitive match or a tournament, but it didn’t happen of my injury. So I was pleased to get this chance for my farewell game. Not many international stars get an opportunity to retire playing against such a big club and big players.”
Off the field, his contribution to a sport that struggles for popularity behind cricket has been immense. Bhaichung has been the face of Indian football for over a decade now, single-handedly promoting the game in the country and even abroad, after a short stint at Bury FC and later as part of world XI teams in exhibition matches. The striker though, is modest.
“When I began playing football, I just wanted to play for India. It’s a tough international finale for me as Bayern Munich are one of the best teams in European club football. But it is a challenge that I am looking forward to. I am mentally prepared.”
It is as much a big occasion for his teammates as well, many of whom have grown up with Bhaichung as their inspiration.
“The team is tense, I think,” said the former India skipper with a smile. “They are playing in my farewell match against Bayern, and they want to do well. But I just want them to give their hundred percent.”
“You cannot compare the Indian team with Bayern Munich,” he added. “But it’s an opportunity for the players to know how much they need to work on to take themselves to the level of top international players. We want to do well. For me, it is just (about) enjoying my last match and enjoying the moment.”
He will be hoping the moment lasts the full 90 minutes.
“I’m going to start the game and I want to play 90 minutes for sure. I’ve just recovered from my calf muscle injury and I’m hoping that it does not happen again. For the last one month I’ve been taking care. Obviously, in terms of the standard of fitness required for the national team or the Bayern team, I’m not there (at that level). But hopefully I’ll last the full match.”
Yet Bhaichung is very clear that this will indeed be his final game.
“I hope that stage of me making a comeback doesn’t come again for Indian football. I’m very happy retiring. However, if there is a need tomorrow, I shall comeback. But I don’t think that that situation should come because I’m quite confident that the youngsters in the current national squad are very good. I hope and I pray that I am not called again for the international team.”
The 35-year-old is also doing his bit to help India find the next Bhaichung.
“Since I announced my retirement six months back, I’ve been busy with my own football club, United Sikkim FC, as well as with my own football school, Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, which provide quality training and reach out to as many kids as possible at the grassroots level. From there, I’m hopeful some talent will come up.”
In the meantime, the player and his fans will cherish the treasured memories of the years gone by, including, hopefully, the final chapter in the story of one of India’s greatest football legends.