The long walk off the field but not away from it


Nilanjan Datta

The match ended, the walk started – the long walk back to the dressing room. The Man paused and turned to the crowd – hands went up in appreciation, all in appreciation for the support over the years. In the stands, hands went together too – clapping in appreciation – a gesture for all the achievements, for all the entertainment.

We found it convenient to have a sneak peek into his heart – and there it was running high — more than the emotions, the adrenalin. No tears, no regrets.

The steps to the Dressing Room at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium didn’t have ‘Farewell’ written on them. Rather, they kicked-off the kick-off of a new phase. From United Sikkim Football Club to his Academy to all his future endeavours — Bhaichung Bhutia’s footballing life has just begun.

On the ground, a crowd of around 50000 treated him to his Farewell. During the warming up, every time Bhaichung Bhutia was focused on the giant screen, the crowd went up. Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger paused and looked up as to what was happening. They gauged the sentiment and continued.

Bayern Munich’s gesture was touching. Captain Philipp Lahm presented a No. 15 Bayern Munich jersey to Bhaichung. It had ‘Bhaichung’ written all over it. From the stands, AIFF Player-of-the-Year Sunil Chhetri stretched all his vocal chords but it got lost in the roar. The Bayern players clapped.

At the interval, Bhaichung was presented an Audi Q5. His first touch of the ball in the 2nd minute had Rafinha closing him down. Realising Bayern were looking threatening with their early possession, Bhaichung even preferred to fall down to his own half to help. You just ought to laud his commitment. He never shied away from sliding tackles and pressed like a debutant.

The colourful crowd did witness four goals, though all from Bayern Munich side. Thomas Muller scored a brace (29th and 37thminute) while Mario Gomez (14th minute) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (42nd minute) scored one apiece.

The journey ended in the 84th minute. Bhaichung was substituted! His contribution though will, never be. The entire team stood up, players came rushing from positions to embrace and wish him; even Bayern footballers — all Megastars of World Football, too showed the gesture. The standing ovation was inevitable – in midst of all, none noticed India U-23 striker CS Sabeeth who rushed to the ground to substitute him.

It was befitting enough as it was the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where Bhaichung had first burst onto the scene as a 12-year old kid in the nineties. The Stadium wasn’t this majestic then; the Man was just a kid.

U-23 players Lalrindika Ralte, Jewel Raja, Jeje Lalpeklua, all of whom came in the first half did stretch Bayern a bit in the second half. But it wasn’t a match where the result mattered.

It was a Farewell Match for someone to begin another walk off the field, but not away from it.