It’s not easy for sportspeople to retire, and for people with distinguished international careers, the challenge is even more acute. Two of India’s most celebrated cricket captains, Sourav Ganguly and Kapil Dev, dragged the end of their careers through controversy and criticism before finally stepping down. No such worries for Bhaichung Bhutia, 34, India’s former football captain.
When he announced his retirement from international football (he will continue playing club matches) at a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, he knew he had already laid the groundwork for doing exactly what he has always dreamt of after retirement.
Looking forward: Bhutia will have his hands full playing for and running his own club and football school.Photograph by Getty Images
“Strangely enough, I will actually be even more involved in football now,” Bhutia says, “and my biggest and toughest challenges are still ahead of me.”
Bhutia is referring to the Gangtok-based second-division side United Sikkim Football Club (USFC), which he founded last year and co-owns. But that’s not all: He also started the Bhaichung Bhutia Football School in New Delhi late last year in partnership with former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz’s acclaimed football academy in Portugal. After painstakingly building a squad for USFC, Bhutia is now working on setting up a youth development programme for the club, as well as his own academy.
“I am committed to improving the game in India,” says Bhutia. “These are exciting times for me. I’ve thought about doing this for years, and now it’s really happening.”
If there’s one thing Bhutia knows—after a career spanning more than 17 years and several clubs—it is that India needs a serious boost in grass-roots development and a massive structural change at the club level.
“Little has changed at the grass-roots level since I made my debut for East Bengal in 1993,” he says. “The lack of good training facilities for developing young footballers is one of the main reasons why India has failed to become a strong footballing nation. People might ridicule me when I say this, but I do hope to change that. Someone has to start.”
Despite the poor state of Indian football, Bhutia’s rise as a footballer was phenomenal. Born in a remote village in Sikkim called Tinkitam, Bhutia got his first chance to play football when he was picked for his school team, and was immediately spotted by scouts as a special talent. In 1992, while playing for Sikkim’s Under-16 squad, Bhutia impressed former India and East Bengal captain Bhaskar Ganguly so much that Ganguly convinced East Bengal to sign him up immediately. A year later, 16-year-old Bhutia made a dramatic entry into professional football.
Football commentator and analyst Novy Kapadia remembers the incident clearly.
“It was the Durand Cup semi-final at Delhi’s Ambedkar stadium and I was commentating,” recalls Kapadia. “East Bengal were playing BSF (Border Security Force), and there was a partisan crowd at the stadium since BSF was largely made up of players from Punjab. A rugged, hard-tackling team with some of the most intimidating defenders of the time. The game was about to end scoreless when the East Bengal manager took a gamble and gave Bhaichung a chance. East Bengal won a corner in extra time, and when the ball floated into the box, Bhaichung came out of nowhere and lashed a bicycle kick into the back of the net. Next thing you know, there was complete silence inside the stadium for a few seconds. Then the crowd erupted in joy, even though their team had lost.”
Former India and East Bengal striker I.M. Vijayan, who formed one of India’s most successful strike pairs with Bhutia in the 1990s, says from the time he made his professional debut, Bhutia was a class apart from most of his contemporaries.
“You could see how clever he was, the way he was getting into the right positions, avoiding tackles, passing the ball, taking his shots, all effortlessly,” Vijayan says. “He was also such a polite, quiet boy, mature for his age, and the best of his era on the field.”
In 1995, Bhutia joined JCT in Phagwara, Punjab, and immediately went on to win the inaugural National Football League (now called the I-League) in 1996-97, becoming the highest scorer that season. In 1995, at the age of 18, Bhutia scored on his debut for India to become the country’s youngest international goalscorer. In 1997, he returned to East Bengal, and scored the first hat-trick at the sectarian East Bengal-Mohun Bagan derby, watched by over 100,000 people at the cavernous Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.
“Playing in Kolkata was a dream,” Bhutia says. “It came to me so quickly, I had no time to think about it, but I knew how special it was and how much it means as a footballer. But I was never intimidated or scared. I didn’t spend time thinking about the crowd, or the tradition of the club, or the huge fan following it has. I only thought about my own game, and how I could make it work in the team.”
In 1999, Bhutia transcended the mediocrity of Indian football to appear for trials for English Premier League clubs Aston Villa and Fulham, before becoming the first Indian player to play professionally in Europe when he signed a three-year contract with second-division side Bury FC.
Bhutia returned to India in 2002 after being sidelined in his last year with Bury FC due to a recurring knee injury that required two major surgeries. In 2003, he helped East Bengal win the ASEAN Cup, the only Indian club to win an international title.
“As a player, he has always operated a notch above all his contemporaries,” says Salgaocar Football Club coach Karim Bencherifa, who also coached Bhutia when he was the Mohun Bagan manager in 2008-09. “I was watching a montage of Bhaichung’s goals with my colleagues, and I told them, count the number of times he scores with just one touch—70-80% of his goals were one-touch—no need to control the ball. He is one of the rare Indian strikers who has the skill and technical ability to do that. That’s what I want from all my strikers, because inside the penalty box, you have absolutely no time.”
Bhutia has scored 43 goals from 109 matches he has played for India, and is both the highest scorer in Indian football history, and the only Indian footballer to have played more than 100 matches.
Indian international Renedy Singh, who met Bhutia for the first time in 1991 during a school-level tournament, says the striker’s most inspiring quality is his fighting spirit. “A great team leader, and a great fighter,” Singh says. “When you cross or pass the ball to Bhaichung, even if you know the cross was not the best, you can count on him to extract 100% out of it. He would battle his heart out in every 50-50 situation on the field. All his career he has been like this.
“Being that tough on the field, you are born with it. I’d love to be like him, but you just can’t get it like that, it’s an elusive quality.”
The last three years have been Bhutia’s best for the Indian national team—a time when the side won three Asian Football Confederation (AFC) tournaments in three years starting 2007, and qualified for the AFC Asia Cup 2011 for the first time in 26 years.
“It’s the best possible thing that happened to me while playing for India (qualifying for the Asia Cup),” Bhutia says. “Under (Bob) Houghton the team was structured, disciplined and unified, and the results showed that.”
Bhutia’s absence from the national side will be a severe blow even though, at 34, he is not at the peak of his game any more.
“There is just no one at that level right now,” says Singh. “There is only one Bhaichung Bhutia.”
Bencherifa also points out Bhutia’s immense contribution off the field as an ambassador for Indian football—despite India’s lowly ranking of 144 in the world, he was picked to play in a Fifa charity match called Goal4Africa in 2008 in Munich, alongside some of the most iconic footballers of the era—Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, and Didier Drogba.
“In his own sphere of influence, he did for Indian football what Zidane did for French football, or what Park Ji-Sung did for Korea, and this is no exaggeration,” says Bencherifa.