"Musicians don't retire, they stop when there's no more music in them," American jazz legend Louis Armstrong had said once.
While no musician, as a stalwart of 107 international matches and having shouldered the expectations of an entire nation for over a decade, Bhaichung Bhutia certainly was an artist who painted his masterpieces on a football pitch.Plagued by a recurring calf injury, the 34-year-old striker had decided to forego the trip to England next month where the India under-23 squad (Bhutia and Renedy Singh were the two seniors in the side) will play two friendlies against Pakistan.
Addressing a media conference at the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) headquarters here on Wednesday, Bhutia drew the curtains on his illustrious 16-year international career.
"The last 7-8 months have been frustrating due to lot of injuries. So I have decided to quit," he said.
"The Asian Cup (in January 2011) would have been the perfect stage for me to end my career but I just played 15 minutes in the last game. I always wanted to retire while playing but sometimes things don't go your way."
Hailing from a non-descript village called Tinkitam in Sikkim, Bhutia debuted for India against Thailand in the 1995 Nehru Cup. They lost 0-5.
HT asked Bhutia which was his most memorable international goal. "My first goal for India against Uzbekistan in the 1995 Nehru Cup," he said without hesitating.
"IM Vijayan, even today I will say, was the greatest Indian player ever," Bhutia said, fondly remembering his strike partner of seven years.
Having worked under several coaches - Rustam Akramov, Stephen Constantine, Bob Houghton - among others, Bhutia felt that they all contributed to helping him evolve as a player. "Akramov changed my life! He made me play as striker instead of in the midfield. In terms of success, we won three titles under Bob (all with Bhutia as captain) so that probably makes him the most successful. Yes, I had problems with some but in the end it was all a learning experience."
The future for the Sikkimese Sniper seems assured given that he co-owns United Sikkim FC, a club he plays for.
"I've been very lucky in my life. Most players, when they retire, would not know what to do the next day. But I have my own club. I have to work on both the technical and administrative fronts which is why I don't see myself working for the All India Football Federation (AIFF) anytime soon. I also have to be committed to my football schools," said Bhutia.
A trophy cabinet filled with every possible honour an Indian football player can aspire for, was there a dream left to realise? "Every player dreams of playing in the World Cup but realities are different. I hope in my lifetime I get to watch India play the Cup. Bigger and better players than Bhutia will see to that."