In 1936, Mohammed Salim represented an All India XI against the Chinese Olympic side in the first international game played in the country. Scheduled to appear for a Civil and Military XI against the same opposition a few days later, he disappeared. Advertisements were placed in newspapers requesting him to join the team immediately, but he was already en route to London. A relative who lived there was visiting Calcutta and saw him play in that first match and persuaded him to try his luck in Europe.
He managed to get a trial at Celtic FC in Scotland and impressed in two friendlies for the side. In the process, he became the first player from the sub-continent to play for an European club. Celtic were very keen to obtain his services and offered him a year long contract but he had grown homesick by then and was determined to return to India, which he did.
Salim set the trend for other Indian footballers in this regard. Talimeren Ao reportedly turned down Arsenal in 1948 and Chuni Goswami did the same with Tottenham Hotspur in the early 1960s. It is fascinating that Indian players would deny themselves opportunities to prove their mettle abroad, given the rarity with which they presented themselves, but a fear of uprooting oneself from a comfortable environment has been cited in the past.
Bhaichung Bhutia bucked that trend. He wanted to prove his mettle abroad and improve his game rather than bask in the glory of his achievements at home. He held trials with a number of English clubs before signing a three year contract with Bury FC in 1999. Bury had just been relegated on goal difference and competed in the Football League Second Division when he joined. He became the first Indian to play professionally in Europe.
Playing in an organised and superior setup did wonders to his game and he returned a better player, definitely a cut above other Indian players at the time. His professionalism is best typified in a story from 2001. India were to play UAE in a World Cup qualifier at Bangalore. While travelling to a practice session two days before the game, the team switched on the television to catch the decider of the India-Australia One Day International series which was locked at 2-2 and was being played at Margao. Directing stern words at the team, the captain told his players in no certain terms to bring their focus back to the game in hand. India won the game 1-0, their most impressive result in decades.
Nicknamed the Sikkimese Sniper for his shooting ability, Bhaichung was a great number nine. Possessing great reflexes, he was deadly in the box, peeling off defenders to find space and be at the right place at the right time. His greatest contribution to Indian football has been in drawing the middle class in a post-liberalisation world to the game in the country. He had a pan-India appeal that very few footballers before or after him had.
He hung up his boots in 2012 after a farewell match for India against a full-strength Bayern Munich side at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi.
Image Credit – Dany Mathew