New Delhi: Former Indian football captain Baichung Bhutia, who called time on his illustrious 16 - year international career, was not only one of the finest players the country ever produced but also an inspirational leader of men.

The 34 – year - old, who hailed from a nondescript village called Namchi in Sikkim, rose to stardom and became the poster boy of Indian football for the major part of the last two decades after making his international debut in 1995 against Thailand in Kolkata.

In a country obsessed with cricket, Baichung was perhaps the only footballer to have carved a niche for himself by his talent and inspirational leadership, which made him an iconic figure of the game.

He had a fan following, though not as big as the Indian cricketers, but which would be the envy of other sportspersons, especially in the football - mad Kolkata and North - East India.

Baichung’s popularity in football was such that his one - time coach Bob Houghton compared him to cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar. while another former India football legend IM Vijayan termed him as the “God’s gift to Indian football“.

An articulate leader, who was India skipper since 1999, Baichung grabbed international headlines when he refused to run for the 2008 Beijing Olympics Torch when it passed through the country to protest the alleged Chinese atrocities on the Tibetans.

His act stunned the sports fraternity in the country, some saying that sports and politics should not be mixed, though they respected his “personal” decision.

Baichung stood firm and explained his act, saying that he would have taken part in Beijing if he was to play for India but he would not want to run with the Olympic Torch.

Plagued by repeated injuries in the last seven - eight months, Baichung decided to hang his boots from international football, making his decision public at a press conference at the All India Football Federation headquarters here.

“I had a fantastic 16 years of international football. I enjoyed every moment that I have represented the country, to have contributed to the game. The last 7 - 8 months have been frustrating due to lot of injuries. So I have decided to quit,” he said.

“Lots of things in life do not happen the way we wish so I am quitting from international football, but will continue playing for my club United Sikkim,” he added.

The lone Indian and one of few international footballers to have played more than 100 matches for his country, Baichung has been the trailblazer of the game in the country as he was the first Indian in post - independence era to ply his trade in Europe when he played for English Division Two side FC Bury from 1999 to 2002.

He led the way for other Indian footballers to follow suit with his younger strike partner Sunil Chhetri playing for Unites States’ Major League Soccer side Kansas City Wizards, while the likes of Subrata Paul, Gouramangi Singh, Anwar Ali and Steven Dias featured in trials for clubs abroad.

Baichung is also the international face of Indian football, having rubbed shoulders with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Michael Ballack, Favio Connavaro, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davis and a host of other stars in the ‘Goal 4 Africa’ charity match to raise fund for children’s education in Africa.

He played in the Laureaus Football Challenge charity match in Abu Dhabi early this year. He was named as one of nominees of best Asian player of 2008 by Arab language magazine ‘Super’ though he missed out on the final shortlist.

The most recognisable face of Indian football, Baichung has been decorated with Arjuna Award in 1998 and Padma Shri in 2008.

Under him, India won the South Asian Football Federation Championships thrice, two Nehru Cup titles (in 2007 and 2009) and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup which gave India the right to play in the Asian Cup this year for the first time after 1984.

But the calf muscle injury he picked up against Namibia in an international friendly at the Ambedkar Stadium here in September in the run up to the Asian Cup in Doha hastened his international retirement.

Baichung could only play for 15 minutes against South Korea in India’s last group match in the Asian Cup in January and that turned out to be his swansong game from the international arena.

He was dropped from the Indian squad selected for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and the preparatory matches, a move which he took into his strides but complained for not showing the courtesy of at least informing him of that.

He was on the verge of international retirement in 2006 after India had a string of poor shows under coach Syed Nayeemuddin with whom he had serious differences but only to change minds on the plea of then AIFF president Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi and new coach Bob Houghton.

Born on December 15, 1976 at Namchi, the five feet eight inch Baichung made his international debut against Thailand in 1995 and went onto play more than 107 international matches. He reached the milestone during the 2009 Nehru Cup here. He scored 42 international goals, more than any other footballer in the country.

Baichung first came to the forefront at the 1992 Subroto Cup in New Delhi where he played for SAI Centre Gangtok. Next year, he was signed on by Kolkata giants East Bengal after his showings in the Subroto Cup and for the National Under - 16 team in the Asian Under -16 Cup Qualifiers.

In 1995, Baichung, along with a host of other Indian top stars, signed up for JCT Mills of Phagwara and had two very successful seasons with them, among other things winning the first - ever National Football League title, being also the league’s top scorer.

In 1997, Baichung returned to East Bengal. By this time he had become one of India’s top players and in the 1998 - 99 season he was the club captain, one of the youngest ever at 21.

On his return from Bury FC in 2002, he joined Mohun Bagan but next year, he returned to East Bengal.

Baichung had to face one of his worst phases in his career in 2009 when he was suspended for six months by Mohun Bagan for missing training and skipping an AFC Cup match due to his alleged pre - occupation with his dance competition at a television reality show.

A bitter Baichung left Mohun Bagan and joined rivals East Bengal while also declaring that he will retire from the red – and - gold brigade.

After a long - drawn battle, an AIFF - appointed arbitrator ruled that Baichung can play for any club he wants.

(Agencies)