On the night of November 11, Palden Bhutia was casually scrolling down a news app. Suddenly, he came across a news piece on the U-17 Women’s Championship 2019 that had commenced on the same day in Kalyani, West Bengal. He started ringing up his contacts in the Sikkim Football Association to find out if anything can be arranged for the Sikkimese girls to participate in the tournament.
"As it was already late at night nobody received my call. The whole night I kept thinking how I can take my girls to Kalyani, from this remote village (Mangalbaria) in West Sikkim so that they can play in the tournament. The next morning, I called again. In the afternoon, I got to know that I have to reach Kalyani on 14th morning with my girls," reminisced Bhutia in a candid conversation with Goal.
At 9:30 a.m. on the 14th morning, he was present at the Kalyani Municipality Stadium along with his nine pupils.
But Bhutia's journey began way back in 2005. He was a physical education teacher in the Mangalbari Senior Secondary school and during that stint, he observed that the girls have no less potential than the boys when it comes to sports. And since there was no girls football academy, young talents were going down the drain.
"It was a tough call. But it was even tougher for me to see that these girls will not get a chance to try their destiny in football due to lack of proper training. Therefore, I started a residential academy (Mangalbaria Girls Football Academy) with just 12 girls."
It was a difficult road ahead. With no financial backing, he was treading on a path of uncertainty. The bulk of his salary went into the upkeeping of his academy and he had a family to take care of as well. Within a year, six more girls joined and with that his expenses also rose.
"Muskil toh tha. Par bandh nehi kiya ek din k liye bhi (It was difficult. But I did not close the academy even for a day). Initially, there were problems in my family as well but eventually, my wife started supporting me," said Bhutia with grit and determination.
The geographical location of Sikkim makes it even more difficult to travel to far-flung parts of the Indian subcontinent. From travelling in unreserved train compartments for straight three days to living in a distant village, away from the city as he could not afford hotel expenses - the man has done it all. But he has never let an opportunity go amiss due to financial crunch.
"Mauka nehi choda hai kabhi (I have never missed an opportunity). I have taken them to Goa for a national selection camp. Then to Chandigarh as well to participate in the U19 national championships. These girls need exposure and if you don't play national level tournaments from a very young age, you cannot improve."
Slowly but steadily his young champs tasted success. In 2011, Sikkim won the Bronze medal in the U19 national championships with the entire squad comprised of girls hailing from the Mangalbaria academy. A few months later they won the Madan Bhandari Memorial Tournament in Nepal.
In the same year, Nima Lhamu Bhutia, a graduate of the academy, was selected in the senior women's national team. India international Lhako Phuti Bhutia went on to sign professional contracts with clubs in Maldives (New Radiant Sports Club). Her training mate Anju Tamang grabbed headlines earlier in May this year when she scripted history by scoring in just 14 seconds for Gokulam Kerala FC in the latest edition of the Indian Women's League (IWL).
The success stories soon started to spread across the state and in 2014, he was promoted to the post of assistant director of Sports and Youth Affairs in the Government of Sikkim.
"As soon as I was promoted I started thinking of moving out of Mangalbaria. The facilities are not enough and I needed a better ground for my players. After three years and with the help of local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) I got a ground in Soreng. So in 2017, I shifted my operations from Mangalbaria. Finally, after a decade I was able to build an academy that would suit my needs. 33 girls are currently practicing in the academy," said Bhutia with a sense of satisfaction.
After receiving a grant of INR 10 lakhs from the Sikkim Government, he has now opened a second academy in Dentam, Sikkim. Talks are also on with the Sports Ministry so that the academy in Soreng is completely financed by the government.
"My girls need better coaches. Also, there is work pressure in the department. So if the deal goes through then it will be very helpful for the Sikkimese girls."
After devoting a lifetime towards the development of women's football in Sikkim he still says 'bohot kaam baki hai' (a lot is left to be done). He has no time to sit back and relax as he might have to take his girls to a national selection camp that might take place in some distant corner of the country.
In Kalyani, his students were not inducted into any team as the tournament had already started. But scouts from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) arranged a trial for those nine girls, and out of them Laxmi Thatal and Sri Debi Subba (both from the newly established academy in Dentam) were selected for the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India squad.
All thanks to Bhutia and his motto, 'mauka nehi chodna hai.'