Indian Football left its Golden era during the first 30 years after Independence but in the modern era, there were very few global icons in Indian Football and Bhaichung Bhutia, commonly known as ‘Pahari Biche'(in Bengali) or the ‘Sikkimese Sniper’ is arguably the most complete footballer India produced in the modern era. Bhaichung Bhutia is still being considered as the Global Ambassador of Indian football. But the journey wasn’t as smooth as it seems now. Born and brought up in a remote village named Tinkitam in South Sikkim, He had to face poverty as well as numerous difficulties to make it to Kolkata, the epicentre of Indian football in the early 90s. We’ll take a look back on the exuberant career of the ‘Himalaya’s gift’ to Indian football.
Early Life and Youth Career
Bhaichung Bhutia was born on 15th December 1976 in a small village named Tinkitam in Himalayan state Sikkim in the North-Eastern part of the country. His father died when he was a kid but after encouragement from his uncle, Karma Bhutia, he started his education in St. Xaviers School, Pakyong, East Sikkim. At the age of nine, He won a football scholarship from SAI to attend the Tashi Namgyal Academy in Gangtok. He went on to play for several schools and local clubs in his home state of Sikkim, including the Gangtok-based Boys Club, which was managed by his uncle Karma. His performance at the 1992 Subroto Cup(school level football tournament), where he won the “Best Player” award, brought him to the notice of the football establishment. Former India goalkeeper and the scout of Kolkata giants East Bengal at that time, Bhaskar Ganguly spotted his talent and helped him make the transition to Calcutta football.
In 1993, at the age of sixteen, he left school to join the Kolkata giants East Bengal F.C. Two years later, after scoring 4 goals in 9 games for the Red and Gold brigade, he transferred to JCT Mills FC in Phagwara, Punjab, which went on to win the India National Football League in the 1996–97 season. Bhutia was the top goalscorer in the league and was chosen to make his international debut in the Nehru Cup. He was named “1996 Indian Player of the Year”. In 1997, East Bengal signed him back after seeing his blistering form. Bhaichung Bhutia has the distinction of scoring the first hat-trick after the Independence of India, in the ‘Kolkata Derby’ between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, when he registered one in East Bengal’s 4–1 victory in the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final. That game gained the hype even before a week of commencement and the atmosphere was electric at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. That game also saw the record number of crowd in Asian football as 1,31,000 fellow supporters attended the iconic game which is embedded in the history book as the ‘Diamond Match’. That game, that hattrick, that atmosphere changed the course of Bhutia’s career. The fellow Red and Gold fans started to call him ‘Bhai'(Brother in Bengali) and Bhaichung Bhutia became the heartthrob in the Mecca of Football in India.
He became the club captain in the 1998–99 season, during which East Bengal finished second behind Salgaocar in the league. Furthermore, he became the 19th footballer to receive the Arjuna Award in 1999, which the Government of India gives out to athletes to recognize their “outstanding achievement” in national sports.
Bhutia has had limited opportunities for playing overseas. On 30 September 1999, He moved to England to play for Greater Manchester outfit Bury FC. He became only the second Indian footballer to play professionally in Europe after Mohammed Salim. This was followed by unsuccessful trials for Bhaichung Bhutia with Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa. He had difficulty obtaining a visa and could not make his debut, until 3rd of October, 1999 against Cardiff City.
His presence will be a big boost to the confidence of many Asian youngsters.Piara Power, Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign co-ordinator, after Bhutia signed for Bury
In that match, He came on as a substitute for Ian Lawson and played a part in Bury’s second goal, which was scored by Darren Bullock after Bhaichung Bhutia’s volley was deflected into his path. On 15 April 2000, he scored his first goal in the English league football in the game against Chesterfield. A recurring knee injury limited him to only three games in his final season at Bury, and he was released after the club was placed in administration. His final appearance was a 3–0 defeat to Swindon Town on 27 August 2001.
In 2002, after being released by Bury. Bhaichung returned to India but this time he played for the arch-rivals of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan for a year. However, this was largely unsuccessful, as Bhutia was injured early in the season and failed to play again that season, missing Mohun Bagan’s only trophy win: the All Airlines Gold Cup. The following season, the prodigal son of East Bengal returned home to serve his third spell for the club. 2003-04 season was one of the most successful seasons for both Bhaichung Bhutia and East Bengal as they went on to win quadruple of trophies as well as became the first and only Indian club to date to win an AFC recognized trophy when they beat Thai football club BEC Tero Sasana in the final of 2003 ASEAN Club Championship in Jakarta.
Bhaichung Bhutia scored 1 of East Bengal’s 3 goals in that game and was named the Man of the Match. He also finished as the top scorer of the Championship with nine goals. Bhaichung also scored in the 1–1 draw against Petrokimia Putra and scored five goals in a 6–0 win against Philippine Army in the same tournament.
Bhutia also won National Football League, Durand Cup, and Culcutta Football League in that season to complete the quadruple for the club. In that season, Bhaichung Bhutia scored 12 goals as East Bengal won the league by four points from second-placed Dempo. During the 2004–05 season, Bhaichung scored nine goals for East Bengal, which finished in third place behind SC Goa and champions Dempo. After a short spell at Malaysian club Selangor MK Land in 2005, Bhaichung Bhutia returned to East Bengal and became the top scorer in the National Football League 2005-06 scoring 12 goals. This was the final season of his third spell with the Kolkata Club and this was the most successful stint Bhaichung had enjoyed in the Red and Gold colours. During that regime, he scored 33 goals in 54 games for East Bengal and won 6 trophies.
On 15 June 2006, He joined Mohun Bagan and formed an attacking partnership with Jose Ramirez Barreto. However, the 2006–07 season was a poor one for Bhutia and Mohun Bagan as they finished eighth in the league, just one position above relegation. During the 2007–08 season, after the rebranding and renaming of the National league as I-League, Bhutia scored 10 goals in 18 matches, and Mohun Bagan finished slightly higher in the league in the fourth place. Bhutia won the Indian Player of the Year for the second time in 2008. In winning the award, Bhaichung Bhutia became only the second footballer to win it more than once, the other was I. M. Vijayan. In the 2008–09 season, despite a 10-match winning streak, Mohun Bagan finished in second place behind Churchill Brothers because of a final day loss to Mahindra United. Bhaichung finished the season with six goals. In 2009, Bhaichung participated in a dance reality show ‘Jhalak Dikhla Jaa’ and missed a friendly and some training sessions with Mohun Baga. Controversy followed when he announced that He would quit Mohun Bagan, due to the questioning of his footballing commitment by the club’s officials. As a result of the incident, he was suspended for six months by Mohun Bagan. Bhaichung Bhutia was quoted saying “It is just a ploy to keep me at Mohun Bagan for another season. But I will not play for them anymore.”
Bhaichung was reported to have officially signed for East Bengal on 22nd of June 2009, on a one-year contract, announcing that he would end his playing career at the club. Upon signing for East Bengal, Bhutia declared it to be his homecoming, “This is really my homecoming. This is the club from where it all started and it is here where it is going to end.” The situation was further complicated, as Mohun Bagan’s general secretary Anjan Mitra said, “Our contract with Bhaichung is perfectly legal and he has one more year left with us.” Bhutia’s lawyer Ushanath Banerjee countered this, “I doubt the legality of Bagan’s contract. In any case, according to FIFA and AIFF rules, a player who is above 28 years of age is free to make a choice of club in the third year of his contract.” The player and the club were set to meet on 17th of August in the AIFF headquarters to settle their differences with the AIFF general secretary Alberto Colaco. On 29 August, It was announced that the issue had not been resolved yet and the outbound Colaco was set to meet Bhutia on 30 August. No compromise was reached, however, and on 5th of September, former additional solicitor general Amrendra Sharan was appointed to look into the dispute. On 10 September, Bhutia filed defamation charges, claiming damages of ₹10 million, against Mohun Bagan who were “trying to tarnish his reputation”. Bhutia was granted interim relief on 26 September, but the case between Mohun Bagan and Bhutia is set to continue until a final verdict is reached. On 4 November, it was revealed that Mohun Bagan had approached football’s governing body FIFA to intervene in the dispute with Bhutia. Despite all these controversies in the early season, Bhaichung managed to win the Federation Cup for East Bengal.
The start of the 2010–11 season would be without Bhutia until the end of January as the Indian national team prepared and participated in the Asian Cup from November to January. Though laid low by injuries in recent months, Bhaichung Bhutia believes he would return next season after taking a three-month break and if he ever decides to quit, he would do it from East Bengal.
In 2011, Bhaichung joined his hometown club United Sikkim as Player-Manager.
On 12 February 2015, It was announced that Bhaichung would return to East Bengal for the final time on a half-season contract, after which he would retire from professional football. Having retired from India colours in 2011 against South Korea in the AFC Asian Cup, Bhaichung last season said he wished to retire donning red and gold colours “one last time”.
But I don’t see that happening. I am really struggling with my knee injury and not in a shape to play the top-tier I-League for East Bengal. You can say that I am not going to play club again.Bhutia told reporters about his final stint at East Bengal at the launch of East Bengal’s residential academy in BA-CA ground in Salt Lake in 2015
mvpBhaichung made his senior international debut in the Nehru Cup against Thailand at the age of 19 on 10 March 1995. He scored for India against Uzbekistan in the 1995 Nehru Cup becoming India’s youngest ever goalscorer, at 19. In the 1997 SAFF Championship, India beat the Maldives 5–1 in the final, Bhutia was involved in one of those. Two years later, the tournament was held in Goa and India successfully defended their title by beating Bangladesh 2–0 in the final. Bhutia scored the second goal for India after Bruno Coutinho opened the scoring and Bhutia was named as the tournament’s MVP. He also netted two goals in the final of the 2002 LG Cup held in Vietnam, in which India beat the host nation 3–2, Bhutia’s goals came to either side of half-time. The football tournament of the 2003 Afro-Asian Games saw India finish as runners-up behind Uzbekistan. Bhutia scored two goals in the tournament, both of which came in the 5–3 semi-final win over Zimbabwe. The next successful SAFF Championship was in 2005 where Bhutia was a captain and in the group stages he scored a goal in a 3–0 victory over Bhutan but did not score in the other two matches. India progressed to the semi-finals during which Bhutia played in the 1–0 win over the Maldives. The final was a repeat of 1999 final, as Bangladesh were the opposition, and once again India triumphed 2–0 during which Bhutia scored the second goal in the 81st minute from close range after Mehrajuddin Wadoo’s 33rd-minute opener. He received the award for the MVP and also the Fair Play trophy. In the 2007 Nehru Cup, Bhutia scored a penalty in a 6–0 victory over Cambodia in the opening match of the tournament. He also scored in a 1–0 win over Bangladesh and a 3–0 win over Kyrgyzstan. Bhutia played a significant part in the final as he was involved in the build-up to N. P. Pradeep’s winning goal against Syria during which India won 1–0 to become champions. He scored twice in a 2–1 victory in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup against Turkmenistan to reach the semi-finals. The Sikkimese Sniper scored a goal in the final against Tajikistan, during which India won 4–1 thanks to a Sunil Chhetri hat-trick, the victory also allowed them to automatically qualify for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. He was also selected as the MVP of the tournament, finishing with three goals.
The 2009 Nehru Cup was significant for Bhutia, as he earned his 100th cap for India in a 2–1 win over Kyrgyzstan, becoming the first Indian player to reach this milestone. He also scored the first goal in this match to help the team recover from their opening day defeat to Lebanon. In the match against Sri Lanka, Bhutia again opened the scoring which helped India to win 3–1 and solidified their chances of reaching the final. He was adjudged as the “man of the match” for his performance. Bhutia missed the final match of the round-robin, as India were already guaranteed a spot in the deciding match. He was also adjudged as “Player of the Tournament” for his stellar performances in all of the matches, including the decider where they beat Syria in a penalty shootout. At the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, Bhutia was injured for India’s first two games against Australia and Bahrain, but he came on as a second-half substitute against South Korea but failed to save India, losing 4–1 as they were eliminated. The Asian Cup was Bhaichung’s last tournament in national colours as he announced his retirement for India on 24 August 2011 with a then-record of 40 goals in 104 appearances.
On 13 November 2012, Bhutia was named the interim manager of United Sikkim to replace Belgian manager Philippe De Ridder, after the club’s heavy 1–10 defeat in an I-League match against Prayag United on 10 November 2012 at the Salt Lake Stadium. In January 2018, leading up to the Santosh Trophy, he was appointed the manager of his native state Sikkim.
Personal Life and Post Retirement
Bhaichung married his girlfriend Madhuri Tipnis in 2004. The couple has 3 children; the only son is Ugen Kalzang Bhutia, and the other two are their daughters named Samara Dechen Bhutia, Keisha Dolkar Bhutia. The couple mutually filed a divorce in 2014.
Bhutia has an active interest in politics. He had joined the All India Trinamool Congress and unsuccessfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from the Darjeeling constituency. In 2008, Bhutia was solicited to run with the Olympic torch in India, but he refused to carry the torch to show support for the Tibetan independence movement.
I sympathize with the Tibetan cause. I’m against violence but I thought I should stand by the Tibetan people in their fight.Bhutia told as the reason for not carrying the Olympic Torch
He was the first Indian sportsman to refuse to carry the Olympic torch. His actions have won him little praise from his colleagues in India however, who criticised him for mixing sports with politics. In 2018, after the break up with TMC, He established a new party on May 31. The name of the party is “Hamro Sikkim Party”.
The Sikkim government has built a stadium, the Bhaichung Stadium in Namchi, the district headquarters, in honour of Bhutia. He is one of the most popular figures in the state and is considered as a role model to many Sikkimese as well to people from other states of India.
We wish one of the most influencial sports-persons of the country a very Happy Birthday and best of luck for his future managerial career and personal life.
What do you think about Bhaichung Bhutia ? Let us know your opinion in the comment section below.