While he struggles with injury, a goof-up by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) almost prevented Bhaichung Bhutia from playing in the biggest tournament of his career. The situation was saved when the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), according to its website, acceded to a desperate AIFF's request to re-register the India captain as a player for the Asian Cup, which began in Doha on Friday. India start against Australia on Monday.
Indian football's biggest star, an AIFF official said, was registered both as player and official in the list submitted to the AFC on Tuesday. This, he said, was done to help Bhutia stay with the squad in case he didn't recover from the calf injury.
But at a meeting with AFC officials in Doha on Thursday, India found out that according to the tournament rules, anyone registered as an official is automatically disqualified from being a player. That meant Bhutia couldn't have played even if he won the long battle to get fit. India play Bahrain on January 14 and South Korea four days later.
"We didn't know such a rule existed," the official said, preferring anonymity because he isn't authorised to speak to the media. "We had Bhutia both as a player and official because even he isn't sure whether he would be fit. We wanted him to be part of squad even if he failed to get fit."
On being told that Bhutia, 34, can't play, AIFF officials spent most of Friday trying to re-register him as a player. India will have till six hours before Monday's kick-off to judge Bhutia's fitness and, if required, replace him with Churchill Brothers' striker Mohammed Rafi.
Kushal Das, the AIFF general-secretary, couldn't be reached on phone in Doha. Manager Raul Fernandes, too, didn't return calls or reply to text messages left on his phone.
"I will wait for two days before taking a final decision. The team knows I haven't played for long so it wouldn't matter if Rafi has to step in as he too is ready. I trained with the squad today too but felt some pain. We will wait till the last minute to be ready for the unfortunate eventuality of a fresh injury over the next two days," Bhutia told HT late on Friday over phone from Doha.