Top footballer Bhaichung Bhutia ends his international career (Lead)

August 24th, 2011 - 6:39 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Aug 24 (IANS) Bhaichung Bhutia, the only Indian footballer to play over a hundred international matches, has brought the curtain down on his colourful career spanning over 16 years with the regret of not being able to play in a FIFA World Cup.

The first player from South Asia to have turned out for an European club as a professional, Bhutia, 34, said Wednesday that recurring injuries forced him to call it quits from big-time soccer, though he will continue playing for his recently launched United Sikkim team.

Bhutia, one of the finest players of the country, played for English Second Division club Bury from 1999-2002, scored 42 international goals in 107 matches — the highest by an Indian.

“I wanted to retire after the AFC Challenge Cup (2008), but since we won the tournament and qualified for the Asian Cup after 24 years, I thought it would be the perfect stage for me to end my international career. After all Asian Cup is the biggest tournament for us,” Bhaichung told a packed news conference here at the Football House, headquarters of All-India Football Federation (AIFF).

“But I could play just 15 minutes in the last game (against South Korea) in the Asian Cup and I felt it was not the right way to end my career. But since then it has been frustrating and every time I tried to play for United Sikkim, I injured myself. I could play just 4-5 matches for United Sikkim and now when the national call came for the tour to England I thought it was time for me to retire,” said Bhaichung, who has led the national team for over a decade since 1999.

“I always wanted to retire while playing but sometimes things don’t go your way,” he said.

Bhaichung, who was compared to Japan’s legendary mid-fielder Hidetoshi Nakata, said the last three years have been the best in his career but the disappointment of not playing in a World Cup was the biggest regret of his life.

“My last three years have been great. We won three titles which include two Nehru Cups (2007, 2009) and AFC Challenge Cup (2008). In two of these tournaments I was the most valuable player. But we have lost several matches and by huge margins as well.

“As a kid I always dreamt of playing in World Cup, but ground realities were different. It is the biggest regret of my life. I still hope that India qualifies for World Cup and I could go and watch my country playing,” said Bhaichung, who was conferred Padma Shri in 2008.

Bhutia, who hails from Namchi, Sikkim, began his club career with East Bengal in 1993 and two years later made his international debut against Thailand in the Nehru Cup in Kolkata in 1995.

After three years with the red and gold brigade, he moved to JCT in 1996 and played a key role in the Punjab club winning the maiden National Football League. In 1997, he returned to Kolkata and East Bengal and after two years, during which he was conferred the Arjuna Award, moved to Europe to play for Bury.

Not being able to make an impact at Bury, he was back home to join Mohun Bagan. Plagued by injuries during the season, he switched back to East Bengal in 2003 and played a key role in their winning the ASEAN Cup, beating Thai club BEC Toro Sasana. He was Man of the Match in the final and the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals.

The same year he had a brief stint with Malaysian club Perak FC before signing for Mohun Bagan. After a bitter wrangle over his commitment to the club, he left it in 2009 to join East Bengal.

Bhutia admitted that despite all the controversies he was lucky to last 16 years.

“I had troubled times with some coaches, but I was lucky to lead the team for a long time since 1999. I was honoured to play alongside great players like I.M. Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri and Renedy Singh and Sunil Chettri in this generation,” he said.

Asked what was the difference between the two generations of footballers with whom he played, Bhaichung said: “The current lot is professional. But I must admit that in the era of Vijayan and Ancheri we had skillful players. I have always enjoyed playing alongside Vijayan and he is the best striking partner I have loved scoring with.”

Bhaichung said he has no immediate plans to join the AIFF, but will continue making his contribution to Indian football with Bhaichung Bhutia Football School and United Sikkim.

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