The name Baichung Bhutia may not resonate with football fans in every corner of the globe. However, there is no doubt that in the world's second-most populace country, the Indian forward is by far the most recognisable native player, his achievements and charisma over a long period having rendered him a superstar to the masses swelling the nation's burgeoning fan base.
Bhutia will accomplish what he considers the finest moment of a glittering career next month, when he leads his country into the AFC Asian Cup. Qatar 2011 will mark another major chapter in what has been a long journey for the 33-year-old, who hails from India’s smallest state Sikkim, where he grew up amid the fresh air of the Himalayas.
Bhutia’s domestic career stretches nearly two full decades, and has been played almost entirely in his homeland. His last spell abroad was a brief one in Malaysia in 2006, but he is famously considered the first Indian to play professionally in Europe. After trialling with a number of English clubs, Bhutia landed a contract at Bury in 1999, and though his three-year stay at Gigg Lane was hampered in part by injury, the move did earn him a reputation as a role model in his homeland.
Much of his domestic career has been spent with East Bengal. "This is the club from where it all started and it is here where it is going to end,” he said upon his return to the club last year. The Kolkata giants were the first team to win back-to-back National Football League titles, with Bhutia central to the second of those triumphs in 2004.
Bhutia has twice been named Indian player of the year, in 1996 and 2008, with the latter recognition partly a reward for his role in securing India the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. Typically, the 'Sikkimese Sniper' played a key role in achieving qualification, scoring three goals and being named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Victory in the tournament - established for Asia’s developing football nations - is a potential watershed in the history of the game in India, as it ensured a ticket to Qatar 2011 and the chance to rub shoulders with the continent’s elite. It was an accomplishment that was 26 years in the making, with the country's last appearance way back in 1984, when they returned home winless.
Bhutia told FIFA.com that he considers qualifying for the Asian Cup to be the greatest achievement of his career. “I think we achieved much in qualifying but if we do well in Qatar it will help Indian football in a big way,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be extremely tough but we have had a good preparation, so hopefully we can give a good performance.”
The draw has provided India with few favours, grouping them with Asian heavyweights Australia and Korea Republic, as well as near-qualifiers for South Africa 2010, Bahrain. “It’s a tough group," Bhutia conceded. "I think we are playing against the top two teams in Asia - South Korea and Australia. We also have Bahrain who are probably top five, so we have three of the top five teams in Asia.”
India have spent recent weeks acclimatising in the United Arab Emirates, and their captain believes they will be well prepared for the challenge. While Bhutia has missed much of the camp with a calf injury, he expects to be “100 per cent” when India’s campaign commences against Australia at the Al Sadd stadium on 10 January.
Likely to partner Bhutia in attack for that match will be another Indian pioneer in Sunil Chetri, who earlier this year signed for Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. “I enjoy playing with Sunil and we have played together [for the national team] for the last three or four years. We combine very well.”
Though turning 34 this week, Bhutia has no plans for retirement and says he is enjoying his football as much as ever. However, he has many off-field interests having done much charity work, as well as setting up the first Indian Players' Association. Despite his success, Bhutia remains passionate about helping Indian football to grow, and many post-career options await.
“There have been a lot of setbacks [in Indian football], so there are things to work on,” he said. “I would love to contribute and help Indian football move forward in the future.”