‘Please believe in us’

SANDEEP SAXENA

Bhaichung Bhutia rates the Nehru Cup victory as one of the best moments of his career. “We need to keep the momentum going,” he says in a chat with Vijay Lokapally.

He is always smiling off the field. On it, he is sometimes grimacing in pain, at other times gushing with joy, shouting instructions and plotting ways to score. Bhaichung Bhutia is unrelenting, untiring and a picture of motivation. He is the glowing face of Indian football.

“A legend,” says former National coach Arun Ghosh. “Kudos to Bob (Houghton) for getting the best out of this terrific player. As far as I am concerned, he is a rare jewel in the history of Indian football.”

That was lavish praise for a man who takes immense pride that he was part of the team that defied the odds to win the Nehru Cup. Bhutia is simply not amused when someone suggests that the opposition India faced in the tournament lacked quality.

“Syria is ranked above India. I think we played some outstanding football to score back to back victories (against Kyrgyzstan and Syria). How often do we beat such teams? I think the team deserves some credit,” he says.

On the positive approach that started with a 6-0 win over Cambodia, Bhutia is most humble, underplaying his role. “I would give most of the credit to Bob. He showed us how to score, and how to win. He was with us every moment, in success, in defeat, urging us to attack, always wanting us to play our natural game. His reading of the game is incredibly high. He has a big role to play in the times to come and we have to give him a longer run and rally around him. We would have done wonders if Bob had come to us much earlier than he did.”

Bhutia, 27, gets emotional when he reflects on the Nehru Cup win. “It is one of the best moments of my career. I remember the LG Cup (in Vietnam) but this one was special. It came in front of the home crowds and we owed it to the fans who had supported us so warmly right through the tournament.”

For years Bhutia has been the torch-bearer of a game that has universal appeal. In India, however, football is uncharitably referred to as cricket’s poor cousin. There can be no comparison, and Bhutia makes a point in this context.

“Not everyone becomes a Sachin Tendulkar in cricket. There is glamour in cricket and there will be glamour in football too once we achieve a certain status in the international circuit. Why compare cricketers with footballers? Each has a place in our system,” says Bhutia.

Talking of the (football) system, Bhutia says: “Things are changing, improving, but the process is slow. Things are looking good with support from the corporate world and the media. The footballers’ image in the society has also improved in recent times and wins such as the Nehru Cup would go a long way in boosting the confidence of those who are connected with this great game.”

What does Indian football need to be back on track?

Bhaichung Bhutia controls the ball in front of Syria’s Khaled M Albaba in the final of the Nehru Cup. The Indian captain gave full credit to his team for winning the tournament.-AP

Bhaichung Bhutia

“Overall facilities need to improve. That will come with more media coverage and support from the sponsors. I am happy to tell you that young kids are taking to the game in a big way in small pockets around the country. There is a big surge (in popularity of football) in urban areas too where the kids were usually attracted to elitist sport like cricket, tennis and golf. There is place for football too.”

In Bhutia’s opinion, one cannot take to football unless you have a passion for it. “You follow the game as a kid and play it because you love it. You are not thinking of financial returns from football when you get your first pair of boots, shirt and shorts. The motivation comes from within. You do have your role models and that I think becomes the driving force. Money is secondary. Love for the game is paramount for me, even today.”

The Nehru Cup performance, according to Bhutia, should help football acquire a better image in the eyes of the Indian sports lovers. “It is up to the team to grab this opportunity. We need to play well and inspire the youngsters. There is work for the officials too. There are shortcomings in the system and we need to rectify them. The club culture and administration have to become truly professional. The administration has gone to seed and we need to pay immediate attention to this very important aspect of running the game in the country.”

The soft-spoken Bhutia also makes a fervent plea to sports lovers. “We need to keep the momentum going. I know it would be tough but we need to make a beginning somewhere. I have always said we have the talent. What the talented youngsters need is direction. They are willing to punish themselves on the field to bring glory to the country. All I request is support from the people. We have a young side that believes in itself. We just want you to please believe in us.”