Bhaichung Bhutia, as we all know, is one of the most decorated Indian footballers of all time. The Sikkimese Sniper scored 40 goals in 104 appearances for the Indian national team and also had a colourful club career spanning two decades. Born in a small village called Tinkitam in Sikkim, it was here that a young Bhaichung found his calling by seeing others around him excel with a ball at their feet. While his uncle Karma Bhutia was of course a huge inspiration, another such individual who was responsible for him taking up the beautiful game is Urgen ‘Mini’ Lama.
Born in 1953 in Kalimpong, Lama is one of those extremely talented football players from the north east whose names have faded away from public memory. Nicknamed ‘Mini’ due to his short stature, his first brush with football happened in 1969 when he was called up to represent his school team, Scottish University Mission Institution. A couple of years later, a team from West Sikkim got him on board for a local tournament where he mesmerized locals with his skill and ability, so much so that a local newspaper wrote an article on him, brandishing him as a prodigy.
However, it was the year 1974 when he realized his dream of playing football for a living when he got an invitation from the King of Bhutan to play for their national team. For the next seven years he would travel back and forth with the Bhutan team to participate in all the major tournaments like Durand Cup, Bordoloi Trophy and DCM Trophy. He also won the best player award in the 1977 Gorkha Gold Cup and ended up playing a season in Kolkata with Bharati Sangha in 1979. Thereafter, he joined Kolkata giants Mohammedan Sporting in 1982 and played in the Kolkata League before landing up in Sikkim where he would go on to play in seven Santosh Trophy tournaments as player cum coach for a local club.
It was here that Mini would come across a young Bhaichung. The coach of Bhaichung’s school team, Manas Chakrabarty had requested him to train the youngster during the winter break to keep him up to speed for local tournaments. Thus began a lifelong association between the two with the legendary Indian captain even inviting him for his wedding years later.
A local legend who unfortunately never got any recognition from the higher authorities of the sport as well as the government, Mini is adored by thousands, both young and old, back in Kalimpong and the entire north east. At his peak, he had played alongside the likes of Shyam Thapa and Pem Dorjee in a tournament in Biratnagar, Nepal, where he was ushered into the side as a last-minute replacement striker and ended up winning the trophy for his team. He finally bid adieu to the game he loved in 1989 but not before a memorable performance in the All India Governor’s Gold Cup where he scored a goal which, according to locals, was one for the ages.
Currently working as the President of the Kalimpong Sports Association, Mini also helped set up the Kalimpong Football Academy which has become a hotbed of local talent in recent years. It is due to people like him who stay in the background and let their work do the talking that we are seeing so many youngsters from the region come through the system and play for the big city clubs. The fact that he has played such a major role in helping Bhaichung and many others become who they aspired to be is in itself a feat that should be celebrated all over the country. The fact that it isn’t is a reality that we cannot escape.