Only a handful of people would have guessed that Bhaichung Bhutia was playing his last game in India colours when he came on as a second-half substitute against Korea Republic in the AFC Asian Cup 2011 in Qatar. After missing out on the first two games against Australia and Bahrain with an injury, the skipper came on to the pitch to save a failing India. However, his efforts went in vain.
The Indian team was battered 4-1. And that marked the end of the glorious career of Bhutia — one of the greatest footballers India has ever produced.
“Being with the team and travelling with them are the two things I miss the most,” said Bhutia in a media release shared by FIFA World Cup 2022 on the 10th anniversary of his last appearance for India.
When he hung up his international boots, he was the only Indian player to have reached the 100-match mark for the country. In 1995, he scored his debut international goal against Uzbekistan in the Nehru Cup, which made him India’s youngest ever goal-scorer at just 19. But how has been the second half of his life?
“It has been very good, exciting and challenging. I have been getting into new stints, venturing new scopes, that’s why it has been interesting. Whereas, fatherhood and kids have been challenging (smiles),” said the former player.
Although Bhutia could play only 12 minutes in Qatar, he had an unforgettable experience in the middle-eastern country. Moreover, what amazes him is the progress made by The Maroons in the last decade both on and off the pitch.
“It was a great experience for me (back in 2011) and the team as it is the biggest tournament for a player. But unfortunately, I was out injured and could play only one match. We watched the top footballers of that time play and it was great. Overall, the atmosphere was fantastic,” reminisced the 44-year-old about the time spent in the Gulf country.
Although Bhutia could not play a major part in the finals in 2011, he was one of the primary architects behind India’s qualification to the marquee tournament in Asia. India sealed their Asian berth by virtue of winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and in that tournament, he was adjudged the most valuable player, for his three goals including the one against Tajikistan in the final.
Hence it is not at all surprising that he would say, “I think winning the AFC Championship qualifying has been the most satisfying moment in my career.”
In the next year, during the 2009 Nehru Cup, he earned his 100th cap against Kyrgyzstan in a 2-1 win. Even in that match, he found the net before striking again against Sri Lanka. India won the tournament by beating Syria in a penalty shootout in the final and Bhutia was once again adjudged the player of the tournament.
Qatar have come a long way in recent times. The Middle-East nation will be the hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and are also the current Asian Cup champions.
“Qatar has invested a lot in infrastructure. That is the reason they have been hosting big events like the Asian Cup and World Cup. They are developing their team also very well, so they have become the Asian champions,” said Bhutia.