THT Heroes Special: Baichung Bhutia – A Love Beyond The Kolkata Divide

The living legend of Indian football, the ‘Sikkimese Sniper’, is one of the rare breed of footballers in India who have donned both the Red-&-Gold and the Green-&-Maroon jerseys in their playing career. While most of the East Bengal fans connect to Baichung as their ‘home prodigy’, a large number of Mohun Bagan faithful portray the phenomenon as an avid Mariner.  But quite a few fans from both the camps have raised more than an eyebrow over his repeated switching of the club loyalty, from East Bengal to Mohun Bagan and vice versa.

The Beginning

To set the records straight, let us have a brief overview of his professional career. Baichung, who joined Kolkata giants East Bengal as a wonder-kid and went on to take over the captain’s arm-band in the year 1998, got rewarded for his excellent demonstration of talent in the domestic and the international arena with a call from English second division club – Bury FC. This was an once in a lifetime opportunity for any Indian footballer and he graced Indian football by inking a three year contract with the English side.

After this unsatisfactory stint in English football, which was marred by injury problems, he came back to India and joined the rival tent of Mohun Bagan in the year 2002. Then after just one year, he came back to East Bengal and played for three years before switching his loyalty to Green-&-Maroon once again. He made another switch to East Bengal in 2009 after developing an astringent relationship with the Bagan club authorities.

Now if we take a closer look at the circumstances during each of Baichung’s transfers, we can easily find out the real reason behind his split loyalty.  It is quite evident that the switching of allegiance has nothing to do with a lack of commitment from the legend’s side, as some of the club officials attempt to portray.

Return to the motherland

After spending a largely substandard three years in the English summer, trying to recover from recurring injury crisis, Baichung decided to come back to Indian professional football. And while making his decision, he hardly tried to suppress his emotions and willingness to join back his old club East Bengal. East Bengal on the other hand were in deep cash crisis after spending large chunk of money on quality foreigners to help them regain supremacy in the domestic circuit.

Although the Red-&-Gold brigade went on to clinch the National League title in 2001, their financial condition deteriorated to an all-time low. So when Baichung wanted to come back for another stint in India, it was not possible for the East Bengal administrators to arrange the money required to obtain the services of the superstar. But Mohun Bagan showed keen interest on him and as Baichung wanted to get settled only in Kolkata, he had no other alternative but to accept their proposal. Thus, he went on to become a rare player of his generation to have played for both the arch-rivals.

But his honeymoon with Green-&-Maroon jersey did not last long. After picking up an injury in the initial part of the season, he failed to play even a single game. Baichung largely blamed Mohun Bagan support staffs for rushing him into the game, when he was still in the process of recuperating to full match fitness. Even the club officials showed largely indifferent attitude towards an injured Baichung. This infuriated him and he decided not to extend his contract with Mohun Bagan anymore.

Bhowmick’s recruit

By that time, after a disastrous campaign in 2002, there had been large scale reshuffling in East Bengal camp. Subhash Bhowmick was appointed as the coach for the Red-&-Gold and he was given the license to go for quality recruits, backed by the sponsorship of Vijay Mallya-owned Kingfisher. The first person Bhowmick wanted in the squad was Baichung Bhutia.

Baichung, fed-up with the unsympathetic attitude of Bagan officials, obliged gratefully and signed on the dotted line for East Bengal. East Bengal also managed to enroll the likes of Douglas de Silva, Cristiano Junior, Mike Okoro, Suleh Musha in their squad during that period.  And as they say, the rest is history.

Bhowmick-Baichung combo won almost all the prestigious silverware for the club in 2003 season, including the much anticipated national league title. East Bengal also tasted international success during that time, when they were crowned champions in the prestigious LG ASEAN Cup in Vietnam. Baichung top scored with 8 goals and was awarded the ‘Golden Boot’. The star striker also bagged the honors for ‘Man of the match’ in the final and ‘Player of the tournament’.

After a brief loan spell in the Malaysian league with Perek FC later in 2003, Baichung came back to East Bengal for the regular Indian football season. East Bengal again clinched the coveted national league title in 2004 with Baichung being named ‘Indian Player of the Year’.

But a string of pathetic performances and a derby defeat to Mohun Bagan marked East Bengal’s demise in the 2005 season. And as is the case with all the Kolkata Clubs, the coach Subhash Bhowmick was made the sacrificial lamb and relieved of his duties. Baichung was reportedly unhappy over Bhowmick’s firing. But the players regrouped well under new Belgian Coach Philippe De Ridder and went onto finish 2006 national league standings in second place. Baichung Bhutia was once again awarded the ‘Player of the National League’ title.

Bagan’s Recoup

But a change of guard, in East Bengal’s internal administration, resulted in differences of opinion between club officials and Coach De Ridder. The Belgian coach’s contract was eventually terminated and Brazilian veteran Carlos Roberto Pereira was introduced as the new coach. Baichung reportedly thought it was unfair on Ridder and was visibly upset with the club administration. Baichung got disheartened at the lack of any proper communication mechanism for the players in the selection or sacking of coaching staffs. He wanted the players to be consulted by the administration in all sporting decisions. But his plea fell on deaf ears.

That was the time when Anjan Mitra, General Secretary of Mohun Bagan, spoke to Baichung in person and persuaded him in signing a contract with the Mariners, promising him of a better dressing room environment and implementation of enhanced player friendly approach. Baichung went on to form a deadly attacking combo with Bagan’s renowned Brazilian striker Jose Barreto and brought glory to the club in subsequent years. Noteworthy point here is that Baichung again won the ‘Indian Player of the year’ award in 2008 with Mohun Bagan, making him the only player in the history to win this tremendous achievement with two different clubs.

The Final Homecoming?

Off the field, later in 2008-09 season, Baichung participated in the reality television programme ‘Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, which caused much controversy between him and the Mohun Bagan officials. Bagan officials questioned Baichung’s commitment to the game of football, which the Indian skipper did not take lightly. Baichung was suspended for six months by the club and the club President demanded written apology from the icon player. Baichung straight away denied all the allegations and refused to play for Mohun Bagan in the future. But Bagan officials were not ready to let him go and sign for any other club.

Meanwhile, Subhash Bhowmick had been reappointed as the coach of East Bengal for 2009 season and he rendered his full support to Baichung in this controversy. East Bengal club openly lobbied behind Baichung in his fight for justice and declared that he would be welcomed by the club if Baichung wishes to join back.

Baichung – backed up by East Bengal Club and football intellectuals – took up the matter with the governing body IFA and AIFF. Baichung also filed defamation charges against Mohun Bagan Club officials, claiming damages of Rs.10 million, for ‘trying to tarnish his reputation’.  After a lengthy legal battle, the panel appointed by AIFF gave the interim verdict in Baichung’s favour. Bhutia then officially signed for East Bengal on 22nd June, 2009 and described the incident as his ‘homecoming’.

It is a homecoming for me. I want to tell the millions of East Bengal supporters that I am going to finish my career here. It is not going to be a matter of few months but for the rest of my life”, an emotional Baichung announced in the club tent, amidst huge cheering of Red-&-Gold fans, who kept on chanting “Three Cheers for Baichung. Welcome back Baichung. We love you”.

One can very well say that Baichung’s club switching has more to do with situational demands then disloyalty to his club, where he tried to create a better environment for himself and fellow footballers in the country. Commitment, dedication and integrity towards the club, during the time he played for them, were always his topmost priority – a truth which can be validated from the fact that he won ‘Indian Player of the year’ award at both the clubs and delivered innumerous silverware during his tenure as a player with them.

The true football fans will always respect him as the Legend of Indian football, who wore both the East Bengal and the Mohun Bagan jersey with pride and produced scintillating displays of ruthless professionalism on and off the field. The player wasn’t the problem, Indian football was.

  • Biplab

    Awesome read!!!
    Kudos to you guys; just one word, “Brilliant”!!!

  • MBFan

    Very well written….

    Bhaichung will always live in the hearts of MB fans as an influential leader….

    IMO, he is more of a Mohun-Bagan-i than East-Bengal-i…. the article here also portrays this fact by showing Bhaichung in Mohun Bagan colors :)

  • Subhasish

    A very delicate subject. I alwayz hav been thinking in this matter without getting any satisfactory reply from my inner soul. I personally did not like this aspect of BB, though I am a big fan of his football skills. But this article has been an eye opener as far as I am concerned and I am largely relieved now. I searched a lot in the web to knw more about the reasons behind his club switching, but cud not get any info anywhere. The last line sums it up beautifully— “The player wasn’t the problem, Indian football was”… so true !

    Your artcle is one of it’s kind and unique for that matter. A very very good read. Thank you so much.

  • Kripky

    A fantastic write-up. Keep up the good work Deb!

  • Howard Roark

    I hereby declare this to be the best article that I’ve come across in a long time.


  • sfern

    Great read! While sympathetic to BB, the writer handles a delicate issue with finesse. I do get the feeling BB secretly pined for a career at an int’l club all along & may never get over the fact he couldnt make it. He also strikes me as someone who’s easily unsettled by events around him. Still, it doesnt digress from the fact he’s the greatest Indian footballer of our times. I wish him many more days on the field ahead, but mostly a helluva lot more stability!

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  • moy

    if my memory doesnot fail me bhutia played for JCT for a season or two. The author has probably failed to document that fact . Also voices are being raised about his commitment to EB this season (he having played very few of the matches) . Am not a bhutia baiter but the kind of commitment (or is it the media?)he has been showing will be unimaginable for european top flight players

  • Biplab

    You are right”moy”, Baichung had a season at JCT as well, sandwitched between 2 stints with EB. I think the author chose to ignore this fact as the article is more about Kolkata devide revolving around his career at EB and MB.

  • MBFan


    I do not knw what is ur expectation??? Do u want a player to play all d games through injury??? agreed that BB has played very less no of matches for EB this season; but was nt he effective while playing???

    IMO EB’s Fed Cup success can be attributed to Baichung… he came off d bench to score the goal which took them in the semis and again in the semis he played a gem of an cameo against us, assisting in Mehtab’s goal… u cant say that he lacks in commintment just becoz he is out injured… he is by far the most dedicated and professional player in i-leage thus far…

  • Somnath

    Baichung won the inaugural i-League (the called National Football League) with JCT. He was part of the memorable JCT team along with players like Stefan, Tejinder Kumar & Vijayan.

  • moy

    @biplab: the author tried to potray bhutia as a player whose loyalty lied on either side of the maidan when not playing for bury that is. My remark was to make the point that bhutia left EB when he was in top form and i remember my friends who also used to be EB fans quite angry at bhutia’s decision

    @MBFan: I generally don’t respond to stupid criticism, but as an exception i will take the pain of advising u to read my comment once again

  • Somnath

    The voices that are being raised about Bhutia’s absence are really frustrated at other things, take it from a MB fan who knows a LOT of EB fans personally.

    He doesn’t have affinity for any one of the clubs. He had for EB in the beginning of his career, but not now. But whatever the guy is, he is a thorough professional. Possibly the most professional Indian player. He has often been caught up in Calcutta Football’s shambolic management system.

    Last year’ saga over an appearance in a dance show, was terribly farcical.

    Besides he has been past it for last 2 years now, Kolkata clubs don’t seem to attract cream of the crop these days, so they are hatching on to the older players, with predictable outcomes.

  • Somnath

    Persoanlly I think the concept of “Loyality” to a club is overrated.

    And this comes from a Juventus fan :)

    Thing is will a club stand by a player when he is in poor shape ? A lot of clubs sell ex-legendary players when they are old/out of form. Latest example being the Eto’o transfer.

    If clubs can do it, why should a player not reach out for better opportunities ?

  • Soccerfan

    Totally agree with Somnath here. Anyone wondered, in today’s football world, why almost all the players hav an agent associated with them? This defies the logic of loyalty. Only a handful, like Giggs or Scholsey, can boast about it; who never ever in their career, employed an agent for themselves.

    I m in no way blaming the players here; afterall it’s their bread-n-butter.

  • moy

    I won’t like to drawn into this argument of loyality but when someone like Henry says he won’t like to play against arsenal or refuses a move to mancity(with better wages) probably there is a point . And Eto was not sold because of his age or poor form. There were other reasons(this comes from a barca fan).

  • Soccerfan

    All Pep has ever said is that he ‘feels’ Eto’o should leave. No footballing reasons, no character problems, just leave!!! I understand that his temperamental character must be a reason for his ouster. But none can deny the fact that PEP WOULD HAVE NEVER SOLD ETO’O, IF HE WAS NOT AT THE WRONG END OF AGE AND FORM; irrespective of his temperament.
    If so much ingratitude can be shown to a player who has sacrificed so much and brought overwhelming glory to his team, how can the club even expect something in return? IMHO this concept of “club loyalty” is a bit outdated in today’s PROFESSIONAL football world. It’s the same “GIVE & TAKE” policy, just like any other profession.

  • Somnath

    Besides Henry refusing to play against Arsenal, doesn’t make him disloyal to Barca ?

    Arsenal has given Henry a LOT. But he was neither a local boy nor a life long Arsenal fan to say this. Thats crossing the line & to an extent insulting your current club.

    Compare that with what Beckham said. And he is a Man Utd youth product, yet he didn’t say things like that.

    If Dennis Law can score a goal which would ultimately lead to his beloved Man Utd’s relegation (that too scoring for Man City), then why can’t Hnery play ? Not celebrating a goal is justified, Batistuta burst into tears when he scored against Fiorentina for Roma, but saying I wont want to play is too much.

  • Somnath

    On a side note: Chuni Goswami, the Bagan legend, was once offered a blank cheque by EB to play for them. He was asked to put any amount. But he stayed back because of his love for Bagan.

  • MBFan

    Those were the days when “Passion” was in the driver’s seat… but now “Profession” has taken over and “Passion” had to be content with the back seat…

  • Biplab

    By any chance, do you want to say that the current breed of footballers are not passionate about the game?

  • MBFan

    All I want to convey is that “passion” is a not a very common asset; “devotion to the game” and “loyalty towards the club” are painstakingly alien terms to the current breed of footballers. Exceptions are always there, but the general trend is worrisome to say the least.

  • Biplab

    @MbFan –

    You are conveniently dribbling my straight-forward question. I want a plain and simple answer, do you really think today’s footballers are not passionate about the game?

  • MBFan

    I have never said that current players are not passionate. But they are not certainly in the level of older generation players. Not denying the fact that they are far more professional compared to their older counterparts. But the current players are motivated by money, not by loyalty. That’s what my whole point is.

  • Soccerfan

    I am afraid, my fried, you got it all wrong. Professionalism, Passion and Loyalty are three different things and can not be weighed upon the same line.

  • Soccerfan

    Moreover, dont you think each one of us should be entitled to choose our own workplace and employer as per our own wish?

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