When Bhaichung Bhutia came on as a second-half substitute against South Korea in the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar exactly 10 years ago, not many would've understood the magnitude of the occasion. After missing out on the first two games against Australia and Bahrain with an injury, the Indian captain came on to the pitch to save a failing India but could not. India fell to a 4-1 defeat and it was also Bhutia's final appearance for India.
That marked the end of the glorious career of the Sikkimese Sniper - one of the greatest footballers India has ever produced.
Playing for India is was, without doubt, a thing of pride for Bhutia who amassed over 100 caps for the Bue Tigers in a storied career. On the 10th anniversary of his last official appearance for India, Bhutia looked back on his career in a chat with Goal.
It was a memorable tournament, nevertheless, for Bhutia who thinks Qatar have really come leaps and bounds as a footballing nation, with impressive infrastructure and stadiums.
The Middle-East nation will be the hosts of the 2022 World Cup and are also the current Asian Cup champions.
With stunning stadiums that feature cutting-edge technology and world-class infrastructure, Qatar have already promised a wonderful experience for visiting fans. They have inaugurated four out of the eight planned venues for the World Cup and the work is progressing on schedule for the rest. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be one of the major sporting events to be hosted in a post-pandemic world.
"Qatar has invested a lot in infrastructure. That is the reason they have been hosting big events like the Asian Cup and World Cup. They are developing their team also very well, so they have become the Asian champions.
"It was a great experience for me (back in 2011) and the team as it is the biggest tournament for a player. But unfortunately, I was out injured and could play only one match. We watched the top footballers of that time play and it was great. Overall, the atmosphere was fantastic," reminisced the legend about the time spent in the Gulf country.
He also spoke about how he missed playing and being around the national team set-up.
"Being with the team and travelling with them are the two things I miss the most," said Bhutia.
When he hung up his international boots, he was the only Indian player to have reached the 100-match mark for the country. In 1995, with a goal against Uzbekistan in the Nehru Cup, he became India's youngest ever goalscorer at just 19. He went on to become an absolute legend. But how has been the second innings in his life?
"It has been very good, exciting and challenging. I have been getting into new stints, venturing new scopes, that's why it has been interesting. Whereas, fatherhood and kids have been challenging (smiles)," said the former player.
Although Bhutia could play only 12 minutes in Qatar during the 2011 Asian Cup, he had an unforgettable experience in the middle eastern country. Moreover, what amazes him is the progress made by The Maroons in the last decade both on and off the pitch.
Qatar have come a long way in recent times.
Although Bhutia could not play a major part in the finals in 2011, he was one of the primary architects behind India's qualification to the marquee tournament in Asia. India sealed their Asian berth by virtue of winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and in that tournament, he was adjudged the most valuable player, for his three goals including the one against Tajikistan in the final.
Hence it is not at all surprising that he would say, "I think winning the AFC Championship qualifying has been the most satisfying moment in my career."
In the next year, during the 2009 Nehru Cup, he earned his 100th cap against Kyrgyzstan in a 2-1 win. Even in that match, he found the net before striking again against Sri Lanka. India won the tournament by beating Syria in a penalty shootout in the final and Bhutia was once again adjudged the player of the tournament.
With the passage of time, many strikers would grace the beautiful game, score more goals, but Bhutia's legacy will always remain etched in the echelons of Indian football history as the player who brought in a renaissance in Indian football after the dark ages.