Nobody could have foreseen such a prolific career for him when a doe-eyed, sprightly 19-year old first turned out for East Bengal in 1993. But Bhaichung Bhutia has always been one to write his own fate. As the former Indian captain turns 44 today, we trudge down memory lane and relive the incredible journey of one of the biggest icons our country has ever seen.
Hailing from the small village of Tinkitam in Sikkim, Bhaichung was an all-rounder. He represented his school not just in football but also basketball, badminton and athletics. It was his uncle Karma Bhutia, the manager of Gangtok-based Boys Club, who gave him his first tryst with the game in an organised environment. And there was no looking back after that. He was noticed by former Indian goalkeeper Bhaskar Ganguly in the 1992 Subroto Cup and thereafter began his love affair with Kolkata.
He debuted for East Bengal in 1993 but moved to JCT in Phagwara a couple of years later, helping them win the 1996-97 National Football League (NFL). When he came back to the Red and Golds in 1997, he was already the next big thing in Indian football. He had already become the youngest ever goalscorer for India at 19 years of age and was coming off the back of an ‘Indian Player of the Year’ recognition in 1996.
Even so, he truly arrived on the big stage in 1997 with a hattrick against arch rivals Mohun Bagan in the Kolkata Derby. It was the Federation Cup semi-final and one can only imagine the rush he must have felt on his way to a man of the match performance in front of 140,000 people at Saltlake Stadium. He went on to lead the club the following season and picked up the prestigious Arjuna Award in 1999.
Then came the next gradual progression, a stint in Europe. Bhaichung became the first Indian to sign for a European club when Manchester-based side Bury FC came about with a three-year contract. Although he didn’t have much to show for it, it was an experience that surely made him a better centre-forward. A short spell with Mohun Bagan and a loan stint with Perak FA in Malaysia followed before he returned to East Bengal once again.
It was then that he experienced the biggest triumph in his career. Led by Subhash Bhowmick, an inspired Bhaichung took his team to the final of the competition before scoring on the big night itself in a historic 3-1 win over Bec Tero Sasana. Playing alongside others like Mike Okoro, Douglas, Sandip Nandy, Shanmugam Venkatesh and Alvito D’Cunha amongst others, the Sikkimese Sniper finished as the top scorer of the tournament with 9 goals. This however, was followed by another ambitious foray in Malaysia for FA Selangor before back and forth moves between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan made him somewhat of a roadman.
It wasn’t a career without blemishes though. When he sought to return to East Bengal in 2009, complications regarding his contract situation with Mohun Bagan led to a bitter dispute. He then moved to United Sikkim where he played for four years before one last stint with East Bengal which was unfortunately marred by injuries. He retired from international football in 2011 after winning three SAFF Championships and a Nehru Cup, LG Cup and AFC Challenge Cup each. He had also won the Padma Shri award in 2008.
In 2015 he retired from all forms of football and has since been working in the development of the game in his home state of Sikkim as well as all over the country through his Soccer Schools. For someone who was once described as ‘God’s gift to Indian football’, it is his simplicity and the dignity with which he carries himself which will stay on in the minds of every 80s and 90s kid.
Happy Birthday Legend