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Bhutia scaled new heights.

Dubai The peak of Mount Kanchenjunga overlooking Tinkitam, Sikkim, Northern India is considered so sacred by the locals that successful climbing expeditions have always stopped a few feet short of the actual summit before planting their flag and plotting their descent.

It's a tradition that has stuck since British climbers Joe Brown and George Band first scaled the world's third-largest mountain in 1955, leaving the true roof of India forever uncharted, but not as insurmountable as initially believed.

Two decades later, Bhaichung Bhutia set out on a mountainous task of his own from under the shadow of that same peak in his hometown of Tinkitam, becoming the first Indian footballer to play in Europe. He fell just short of Pradip Bannerjee in India's all-time top scorers' list (43) and finished steps away from Shabbir Ali as the country's most capped player (108).

On Tuesday, 30,000 people gathered in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to pay homage to the EoACAySikkim Sniper' in his testimonial match against Bayern Munich, marking the end of his 18-year trek in football's bitter wilderness.

Like Band and Brown, already beaten to climbing's ultimate goal, that of Everest in 1953, Bhutia continued to carry the baton of Indian football beyond what many had believed was already the sport's sell by date, into an unimagined revival.

In their heyday, India won two Asian Games golds in 1951 and 1962, were runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup and even qualified for the 1950 World Cup for what promised to be their first and only appearance. But mounting costs and the need to buy boots saw their era predictably confined to a threshold dictated by resources and infrastructure -- two things India needs to grow to meet its full potential, which it sadly never has.

Dark days

Bob Houghton led something of a renaissance recently, qualifying the team back to the 2011 Asian Cup finals, winning two Nehru Cups (2007, 2009) and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, with 35-year-old Bhutia as captain.

But in the dark days between these two eras, Indian football needed a star and sherpa to lead and carry the weight of the game's many other shortcomings. Bhutia, who played his club football for East Bengal, JCT Mills and Mohun Bagan, ending at his self-founded club United Sikkim, filled that role with earnest to bring football in from the cold.

Not only did he raise the domestic bar with his performances, but his international foray in Malaysia with Perak and Selanghor and most notably in England with Bury, dared a generation of non-believers in India (and outside the country) to dream that they too could make a mark in world football.

Bridging an imaginary, almost psychological, divide between Indian and world football, Bhutia scored career-typifying goals for Clarence Seedorf's XI against Michael Ballack's select in a Goals4Africa charity match in 2008 and bagged another for Zidane's XI against Benfica All-Stars in aid of Haiti in 2010.

Boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch relay in support of the Tibetan Independence Movement, Bhutia proved to be an athlete with principles unsold to the highest bidder.

Like Band and Brown, he still didn't quite make it to the top of his game, failing with trials at Fulham, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion and eventually scoring just three goals in 37 matches at second division Bury. But what he left was an indelible mark in the snow for others to one-day respectfully surpass.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 13, 2012
Words:588
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