Monday, November 26, 2007

Baichung Bhutia

27-year-old, 5'8" tall, Baichung Bhutia is Indian football's pride and joy. Unassuming and friendly, he was born in a small town of Sikkim on the 15th of December 1976 and attended St. Xavier's Primary School there. His parents, who own farms in Sikkim, were worried at first that Baichung's sporting interests would harm his studies, but they relented when he got a football scholarship at the age of nine from the Sports Authority of India, Gangtok. The Boarding School that Baichung attended in Gangtok because of the scholarship played a major part in building his character and in making him a successful footballer.

Baichung represented SAI Centre, Gangtok in tournaments, and was picked to play for the India Under-16 side to participate in the Asian Cup qualifiers. He then moved to Kolkata to serve an apprenticeship at India's premier club, East Bengal. "I had an uncle in Calcutta who convinced my parents that I had a future in football, and that East Bengal was the place to be in if I wanted to play big football. Rubbing shoulders with the pros and keeping my mind open, I matured very fast. Soon I was being approached by many clubs from all over the country to sign up for them," says Baichung.

He moved to JCT Mills, Phagwara in 1995 along with many other star players and helped them win the National Football League. Top scoring in the NFL, he was picked to play for India in the Nehru Cup the same year. In 1997, he returned to Kolkata to his favourite East Bengal, and captained them in the 1998-9. He was voted the 'Asian Player of the Month' in May 1999, and during the same year won the Sikkim State Award and the Arjuna Award.

Baichung, looking for professional exposure in Europe, gave trials for several English clubs, but failed. Eventually, Bury FC, an English second division club, signed him up. He improved by leaps and bounds during the short stint at Bury and profited from the superior strategy and fitness training of the foreign coaches employed by the Indian team in the new millennium. He has thrived under the influence of the present India coach, Stephen Constantine and this has made a big difference to the Indian team's fortunes in recent years.

Playing under the guidance of former India striker, Subhas Bhowmick, he recently won for East Bengal the Asean Cup Club Championship almost single-handedly. Baichung has signed up with Malaysian champion club, Perak, to play in their league this year and has already made a difference to their fortunes despite taking ill a few days after moving in. Baichung's genial nature is matched with a great determination to succeed and an intense killer instinct that is alien to Indian sport.