Friday, 20 January 2012

Baichung Bhutia - Indian Football's Favorite Child

Football in India does not quite create a hysteria. It is still a sport that, though followed by many on television and played by children on streets, has not been able to pick up in India. Very few football fans in India follow the I-League, India's own version of professional soccer league; although this is a better situation than a few years back, when people did not even know that India had a national team too. In came Baichung Bhutia, in the mid 1990s, and altered the face of Indian football.

India has had a glorious history in football. The decade of 1950-1960 was, unarguably the best period in our soccer history. We played in the Olympics, predominantly barefooted, and put up a spirited performance. We even managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, though did not play due to certain reasons. We were considered the best team in Asia at that time. Later, the downhill started. Today, India is no where close to that Golden Era. But, in Baichung Bhutia, Indian football had got, what is the most important thing in any sport, a role model.

Baichung, which means 'Little Brother', hails from Sikkim, a small state in the north-eastern region of India. At 19, he scored in his very first match for India, becoming the youngest scorer for India at that time. From a sleepy hamlet in Sikkim, he rose to play for the biggest Indian clubs and also, a short stint in professional league in Europe, becoming the first Indian to do so. Not only was he an inspiration for the people of Northeast India, he managed to inspire quite a few people in this cricket-obsessed nation. 'The Sikkimese Sniper', as he was fondly called, became the face of Indian football, for the past 15 years. Yes, there were other talented players that came up in India during his time; Yes, there were some genuine strikers who too deserved a chance to play in foreign leagues. But Bhutia, had the determination and the character, to achieve something that was unheard in Indian football.

A few years back, when I saw some Indian in a talk show after the FIFA World Cup matches, I was, honestly, surprised. It was unexpected. Later on, I came to know that he is Baichung Bhutia, Indian football national team skipper. This spurred me to know more about him and more importantly, Indian football. And this is what he has done to many youngsters in this country - he has made them take notice of this sport, which is one of the biggest outdoor games abroad, but fails to make it big here.

Baichung Bhutia has played most number of matches for India, and has also captained India for a long time. He has also dabbled in dance and television, winning the reality show 'Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa'. He has played for the big Indian clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. He has also founded a club 'United Sikkim', in his native state. With Nike, he has planned to open a football academy in India, thus providing much-needed impetus to the game.

Bhutia, recently played his last match in national colors, when All India Footbal Federation (AIFF) organised a farewell match for him against German giants, FC Bayern Munich, which had top class footballers like Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez, Philip Lahm and Arjen Robben. The huge gap between the two teams notwithstanding, it was a gesture, befitting for a player of Bhutia's calibre. Though India surrendered 0-4 to the top German club, it was Bhutia who stole the show. The entire Jawaharlal Nehru stadium roared, when Bhutia had the ball. A nice swansong for Bhutia, if not the perfect one.

Maybe Bhutia's absence from the national team might not plummet the team to lower heights, but we will definitly miss the services of an athlete who raised the profile of the sport in the country, almost single-handedly. Who carries forward the legacy of Bhutia is still unknown - maybe Sunil Chettri or maybe Jeje Lalpekhlua. But, this Arjuna awardee, atleast deserves a round of applause, to have unfailingly been the torch bearer for a not-so-prominent sport in India, for the past 15 years.

1 comment: