Baichung Bhutia, the poster boy of Indian football, announced his international retirement on yesterday following months of injury problems. Bhutia, who turns 35 in December, said his failure to regain full fitness after missing most of India's campaign at the Asian Cup in Qatar in January prompted him to end his 16-year career with the national side.
"Under the circumstances, this was the best decision," Bhutia told reporters in New Delhi. "I made several attempts in the last few months to make a comeback, but could not because of recurring injuries. But I will continue playing club football."
The striker, who hails from the northeastern state of Sikkim, co-owns and plays for United Sikkim FC in Indian domestic football. Bhutia was the first Indian to play professional football in Europe when he was signed by English club Bury on a three-year contract in 1999. He is the recipient of India's fourth-highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, and has also been honoured with the Arjuna award, the country's second highest sporting award.
Bhutia's engaging personality helped bring football to the forefront in cricket-crazy India, earning him lucrative endorsement contracts with major firms like Adidas and later Nike. Bhutia said he was frustrated that India were ranked a lowly 153 in the FIFA rankings despite having a huge population to draw from, adding that he was willing to join the sport's administration.
"My commitment and contribution to Indian football will not diminish and I am ready to help the AIFF (All-India Football Federation) in whatever way they want me," he said.