For one last time...
There is something about football and farewells that connect Bayern Munich to India. On a muggy May evening in 2008, the giants of Bavaria bid adieu to Oliver Kahn at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium. At the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi on Tuesday, Bayern will do it for an Indian idol. Dhiman Sarkar reports. Foot notes | Things you need to knowsports Updated: Jan 10, 2012 01:39 IST
There is something about football and farewells that connect Bayern Munich to India. On a muggy May evening in 2008, the giants of Bavaria bid adieu to Oliver Kahn at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium, the ovation ringing in the mind long after it ceased in the stands. At the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi on Tuesday, Bayern will do it for an Indian idol.
When he left Sikkim as a teenager in 1993, Baichung Bhutia had staked his all for football. The journey, 16 years of which also was with the India team, thereafter was as much a discovery of India for him as it was for the country which found in Bhutia an emblem for the hills in the north and east, a 'fox in the box' on the football pitch and, thereafter, a fine leader of men. It is a journey that took Bhutia to England, had pit stops in Malaysia and got him to play ball with Michael Schumacher at the Allianz Arena that is also Bayern's home. Of the four Padma Shri awardees in Indian football, he is the only one to get it while still a player. And there's a stadium named after him in Sikkim.
Now you know why everyone in the India team that lines up against a full-strength Bayern Munich at Tuesday's Audi Football Summit says it will be an honour to be part of a game after which Bhutia will never wear the India shirt again. Wide midfielder Lalrindika Ralte and strikers Jeje Lalpekhlua and CS Sabeeth weren't even in school when Bhutia debuted for India at the Nehru Cup in Kolkata in 1995.
And as the old order changes in the national team, this will be the only opportunity for goalkeeper Karanjit Singh, among others, to be part of a line-up that has the man who got an overflowing stadium in Kochi chanting "Bootia, Bootia" as India led Iraq before losing the 1997 Nehru Cup semi-final after a penalty shootout. This was, after all, the territory of IM Vijayan, Bhutia's one-time captain and a striker he rates as the best in India over the past 20 years.
"He was the last to enter the team bus on Sunday and when I saw him pop up, it was like 'he's back'. And the dressing room was like it was before. We miss him," said Gouramangi Singh, India central defender, one day before taking on players "we are used to seeing only on TV".
As Bhutia trained at the Ambedkar Stadium on a pleasant morning, students from an upscale Delhi school waited, wanting to talk to him. Not believing their luck they could see an India training session, under-19 trialists requested for photographs; and no points for guessing who was most in demand. And they weren't the only ones.
It does seem odd that a team that has won the German league a record 22 times, bettered the best in Europe four times, has eight German national team players and in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery two World Cup runners-ups, would be part of an Indian footballer's walk into the sunset. But it somehow also seems appropriate given that it is for Bhutia.