The importance of being Bhaichung Bhutia can perhaps be gauged by the fact that even when he's injured --- and he has been that for the better part of two years --- a conversation on Indian football would be incomplete without him.
The numbers and the span of his international career are staggering. It pre-dates the start of the national league and has bridged a 10-year break in the Nehru Cup. The No.15 shirt will never be the same again. Maybe India should retire it.
Yet, incredible though the numbers are, Bhutia was always more than the sum of their parts. He had just stepped out of his teens when one of India's most prestigious colleges invited him to talk to students almost his age. Soon after, he became the first player in independent India to try his luck in England. And in 2003, he became the first and only Indian to be loaned to a club outside the sub-continent.
In less than five years after his India debut, he became the team's elder statesman - he wasn't even 25. When he wore the armband, Bhutia showed what a fine leader he is. Ask any India player since 2000. Better, ask Sukhwinder Singh, Stephen Constantine or Bob Houghton.
The pan-India figure
But while the 2009 Nehru Cup's Most Valuable Player will be remembered for being a "fox in the box", Bhutia's biggest contribution to Indian football is keeping it in the public consciousness when it struggles for recognition. That over 100 journalists attended his media conference showed that Bhutia matters even on the day India slipped to 158th in Fifa rankings.
Bhutia may not be our best ever but was the only pan-India figure since that mercurial genius called IM Vijayan. And he's been inspirational in giving football a fillip in the Northeast. Fittingly, he got his Padma Shree in the year another long-serving legend, Sachin Tendulkar, got his Padma Vibhusan.
Bhutia still helms the Football Players' Association of India, a five-year-old organisation for, of and by footballers. When the Olympic torch visited India before the Beijing Games, Bhutia said he wouldn't be able to look his Tibetan friends in the eye if he accepted the invitation to participate in the run. No other Indian sportsperson, including those more popular, was as vocal.
Most ex-footballers try to stay relevant after retiring by taking up coaching. Few, like Kalusha Bwalya, Jomo Sono, Zinedine Zidane, Jorge Valdano, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoenness and Karl Heinz Rummenigge go into administration or own a club. Bhutia's chosen to walk that path.
A reluctant calf denied Bhutia a final flourish to end an India career that began in 1995. It will disappoint the man known for the pride he takes in his craft. Like his red card that hit India's World Cup qualifying campaign in 2001 after they had stunned the UAE, that didn't go to script but then, as John Lennon has immortalised, "life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans."