The state of Sikkim in north-eastern India has, over the years, produced colossal footballing figures. The likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Urgen ‘Mini’ Lama and Chandan Singh Rawat spring to mind immediately, but in terms of the significance of what he managed to achieve during far more troubled times, Pem Dorji’s name deserves more reverence.
Born in 1958 in the small hamlet of Ben in Southern Sikkim, Dorji was a natural athlete right from childhood. He did his schooling from Kalimpong’s Scottish University Mission Institute and then from Pelling Senior Secondary School and took to football quite organically. His first tryst with the beautiful game at a competitive level came when he was just 18. This was in 1976, when he played in the National Championship in Coimbatore as a part of the first Sikkimese football team.
From there onwards there was no looking back. The talented defender/central midfielder received an offer from Kolkata giants Mohammedan SC in 1980 and a couple of years after that, he became the first player from Sikkim to captain India in the Pre-Olympic tournament in Malaysia. Incidentally, India lost to the hosts even as Dorji missed out due to an injury which led to intense scrutiny from the national media.
That wouldn’t perturb him the least bit as he went on to play for India in the Nehru Gold Cup in 1983, 1984-85 and 1988, the President Cup in Bangladesh in 1983-84 and in 1987, the Chinese Great Wall Cup in 1984 and the Asia Cup in 1984. He was also a regular for Sikkim’s state team which won numerous matches in the 80s against domestically higher ranked teams. Although his most illustrious stint in Bengal was with Mohammedan, Dorji had the rare distinction of playing for the other big two clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan later on in his career as well.
An enigmatic character on the field and equally amiable off it, Dorji passed away in 2001 at the age of 43 after fighting a long battle against cancer. Former India captain and another legend of the game, Bhaichung Bhutia even arranged a charity match for his treatment but that proved to be futile in the end. Be that as it may, a decade long career at a time when people from the north east had it even more difficult to make a name for themselves nationally, is proof enough of his resilience and immense strength of character. For that and so much more, he will always be remembered as one of the finest players India has ever produced.