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Thursday, September 30, 1999 Published at 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK

World: South Asia

Indian striker joins English club

Baichung Bhutia turns out in the colours of his new club

India's star striker Bhaichung Bhutia has arrived in the UK to make history as the first player from the sub-continent to sign a professional contract with a European football club.

The BBC's Peter Stevenson: "He's known as the superstar of India"
Bhutia, captain of his country, signed a three-year deal with Second Division club Bury and could make his debut within a month.

His work permit was originally turned down but he won his appeal ten days ago and is free to play.

Bury and anti-racism campaigners hope Bhutia's arrival will inspire more Asian youngsters in Britain to take up football.

Since turning professional at the age of 16, Bhutia has become one of India's highest paid players.

Now 23, the boyish-looking 5ft 8ins striker - who has been likened to Liverpool striker Michael Owen - has scored 25 goals for his country and earned 42 caps.

The BBC's Peter Stevenson: "He's known as the superstar of India"
His talent has attracted interest from a number of English clubs, such as Aston Villa, and he was snapped up several years ago by international sports management company IMG.

The Indian Government has conferred India's most prestigious sports award, "The Arjuna", on Bhutia and he is regarded as a national hero.

He is used to appearing before huge crowds for Calcutta club East Bengal, one of the few professional sides in India, but there are only likely to be a few thousand at Gigg Lane to witness his debut.

He said: "I need to try and concentrate and play well. I don't want to put into my head that I am first, I just want to focus on the game and do well.

Hard work

"I hope we win the league with Bury and go up. It would be great if Bury was in the first division," he said.

"I do have aims to play with a bigger club. I just need to work hard and keep playing."

Bury chairman Terry Robsinson is hoping that Bhutia will bring more British Asian fans through their turnstiles - and inspire local youngsters to take up the game.

The town has a large South Asian population, mostly Punjabis and Bangladeshis.

Equality campaigners say there are a host of reasons for the scarcity of Asian players in Britain.

Terrace taunts

Racism on the terraces has been reduced since the 1970s and 80s but fear of abuse still keeps many Asians away from football stadiums.

Others say pressure from Asian parents, who regard success as getting a good professional job, is to blame. Cricket is still far more popular than soccer among young British Asians.

A few years ago the Professional Footballers Association and Premiership sponsors Carling launched a campaign called Asians Can't Play Football in a bid to overcome indifference among Asian youngsters.

Progress has been made - there are now a growing number of British Asian footballers who are prominent in amateur soccer.

And in the Premiership, Harpal Singh has been put on the reserve list with Leeds United and could become the first British Asian professional player in the country's most prestigious league.

Waiting game

Bury are also said to be keen on Bhutia's Indian team-mate Jas Jutla, who played for Scottish Division One club Greenock Morton last season.

The anti-racism body, Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football', says Bhutia's signing could inspire Asian players across Britain to follow in his footsteps.

The hope is football will eventually take off among Asians in the same way it did among Afro-Caribbeans twenty years ago.

The campaign's co-ordinator Piara Power, said: "The campaign is delighted that Bhaichung Bhutia is finally being introduced to the British public.

"His presence will be a big boost to the confidence of many Asian youngsters.

"Bury are to be commended for taking this step. It will raise their profile on the sub-continent and with Asians in Britain."

Bury know Bhutia's signing could also pave the way for lucrative marketing deals in the huge Indian market and have already agreed to stage a game for India when they embark on their first ever European tour next year.

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