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Delhi gives Bhutia rousing send-off

sports Updated: Jan 11, 2012 08:05 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar

At 7.50pm on Tuesday, an era ended in Indian football to a standing ovation. That's when Baichung Bhutia said this is it. Even though it's been almost 29 months since Bhutia last scored for India, he will be missed.

Six minutes after Bhutia walked out, shaking hands with every Bayern Munich and India player, it was all over. After a goalless second half, India lost 0-4 but while the winners walked alone, Bhutia got into a media scrum before embracing Sunil Chhetri, said to be his heir apparent. Of such unreal occurrences are football farewells made of.

In a career spanning 108 games for India, this would certainly be the only half-time where Bhutia was mostly seen outside the dressing room. He was first feted by an India sponsor before being escorted to a gleaming white Audi Q5, 26 years after the German automobile giants first connected with Indian sport. Bhutia would have been nine then.

Unlike Gavaskar's gladiators who jumped in and on an Audi with owner Ravi Shastri at the wheel, the India football team wasn't around. Neither did Bhutia drive around the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium like the Champion of Champions did around the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Bhutia first appeared around 5:05 pm, nearly one hour before kick-off, and what the magnificent stadium then lacked in numbers, it made up through decibels. The chant "Bhutia, Bhutia" won't be heard again and New Delhi ensured that the last time would be worth remembering. It drowned the Bayern's theme song Stern des Sueden being played on the public address system. Smiling and chatting with Sameer Naik and Clifford Miranda as he warmed up, Bhutia seemed determined to enjoy every minute of this.

The cameras stayed on him as Bhutia limbered up and soon after, it zoomed in on a poster that said "Who will replace Bhachung Bhutia?" Visiting skipper Philipp Lahm presented him with a club shirt that Bhutia's name and number and was signed by Bayern players.

The problem with playing India striker against a team from a different stratosphere is that you need a monk's patience before a ball comes your way. Once it does, you need a gymnast's agility and Usain Bolt's speed. Even for a man with 43 international goals, that can get too much. It did on Tuesday.

Bhutia kicked off and was the only player not tracking back. Instead, near the centre-circle with Bayern centre-backs Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber towering over him like floodlights, he stood waiting for the ball. And stood. He won India's first free-kick and had their first attempt on goal but it was a hasty, wayward right-footer from 25 yards. Twice Bhutia tried to use the wide midfielders but Bayern nipped such ideas in the bud. Once in the second half, he played the hardworking Syed Rahim Nabi forward.

But none of that mattered. This was Bhutia's evening show and even Bayern Munich acknowledged that. One that began with a smile and ended with a long wave.