Lhako Phuti at Mangalbaria academy in Sikkim. Picture by Prabin Khaling
Gangtok, June 19: A 20-year-old national-level footballer from Sikkim will represent a club in the finals of the Women’s Football Championships in the Maldives, making her the first female soccer player from the state to team up with a foreign team.
Lhako Phuti Bhutia was signed by Maldives senior division club New Radiant Sports Club on June 10. The club is one of the four teams taking part in the tourney organised by the Football Association of Maldives.
“I got the offer last month. My coach told me to go because it would give me exposure to and experience in the international field. He said this would help me brush up my playing skills,” Lhako Phuti said from Chennai yesterday. Bhaichung Bhutia is the only other footballer from the state to have played for foreign clubs.
Lhako Phuti reached Chennai last evening and flew to the Maldives today.
The only other Indian footballer that the club has signed is senior international-level player Oinam Bembem Devi from Manipur.
Lhako Phuti was supposed to join her team in the Maldives on June 6. But there were some problems with her flight tickets. On Tuesday, she got a call from the club and she was told she could join the team on June 18.
The tournament began on June 9. The final match would be held on June 23 and Lhako Phuti will return to India the next day.
“I could not say a proper goodbye to my parents as I was asked to fly to the Maldives. I will be practising with the club for four days,” she said. “I have mixed feelings of nervousness and excitement. I want to play well and make my state and country proud.”
Lhako Phuti, who plays as a striker, was part of the Under-19 national football team last year. She played in Malaysia last year as part of the team.
“I am very happy for my daughter and I want her to play well and make us proud,” said father Mikchen Bhutia, who owns a fast food shop near his house in Sreebadam village in West Sikkim, around 95km from here.
Lhako Phuti wrote her Class XII CBSE exam in humanities from Mangalbaria Senior Secondary School in West Sikkim this year. She is a product of Mangalbaria Girls Football Academy in West Sikkim.
Her coach Palden Bhutia who founded the academy in 2005 said: “This is the result of her hard work and dedication. The feeling of seeing her growing day by day is awesome. She is an inspiration to many women footballers from Sikkim”.
Lhako Phuti was one of the first to join the academy after it started.
The All India Football Federation’s women team in-charge, Indu Choudhary, said the association had received queries about Lhako Phuti and Oinam Bembem Devi from New Radiant Club.
“During a football tournament last year, we had spoken to the officials of various clubs in the Maldives. Some time ago, I got a call from the New Radiant Club about the two girls. The officials had already contacted them. Lhako Phuti is a talented player,” Choudhary said over phone.
The Sikkim Football Association has congratulated Lhako Phuti and her coach for the achievement.“The player will get good exposure. Lhako Phuti might be playing one match now but she could be offered a contract on the basis of her performance in the Maldives,” said the general secretary of Sikkim Football Association, Menla Ethenpa. “She is the first woman footballer from Sikkim to play with an international club,” Ethenpa added.
Lhako Phuti’s expenses in Maldives would be borne by the New Radiant Sport Club.
The player did not divulge any other details about the contract.