‘We still have the mindset of the 60s…'

Baichung Bhutia has great praise for coach Bob Houghton.-Pics: S. SUBRAMANIUM

“I have no problem with Indian coaches. I just want the best and the most knowledgeable man for the job. We have to accept that Indian football is nowhere even in the Asian stage (forget the world). The players need to learn a lot to bridge that gap. The same applies for our coaches too,” says Baichung Bhutia in this interview with Ayon Sengupta.

Reluctantly, Indian football's only icon has decided to put his national jersey in the cupboard and slowly move into the space of administration. After months of unsuccessfully fighting a calf muscle injury, Baichung Bhutia went against his heart but took a final call on his fate.

“I have made several attempts to recover from this. In the last nine months my mind has been in a constant battle against my body. But despite my and the doctors' best efforts I have failed to recover sufficiently. I had to take this decision (to quit). Someday or the other everybody has to make this call,” Bhutia says, a tinge of dissatisfaction echoing over the phone line. “Like any other sportsman I would have liked to retire after a good day's work on the field. I was desperate to play my best football in the Asian Cup but ended up playing only 15 minutes. The recovery has not been appropriate and I was left with little choice.”

In an international career spanning over 16 good and bad years, Bhutia, most of the time, has been the only bright spot in the dark abyss of Indian football. Dreaming big and aiming high, he set up one precedence after the other: the youngest player to score at the international level for the country, being the first from India to play in Europe and being capped 109 times for the country. His feats may not be as gigantic as those of the the Tendulkars and the Dravids, but were equally meaningful and noteworthy when considered against the background of the abject apathy that soccer players are subjected to every day in this country. “I don't feel sad, just frustrated. I know there is so much potential, but still very little is being done to tap the resources. We are still working with the mindset of the 60s and the 70s,” he says. “People follow EPL and La Liga here. There is a huge interest in football, quality football. The players, clubs, administrators, each have to take equal responsibility and commit 110 percent if we want our countrymen to give us the same affection and attention.”

Never afraid to fight for the footballers' cause with administrators, both at the national and club levels, Bhutia has always come out stronger from these confrontations, his stand vindicated. “The Kolkata clubs have millions in fan base, yet they function out of rickety quarters in the Maidan. It's almost like a family run business and the officials are always taking the players for granted,” he says. “Even five years back as players we hardly had a voice. We were drawing the crowds to the ground, playing for our country, yet no attention was paid on our wellbeing.

I remember staying in dilapidated hostels, eating unimaginable canteen food. And the officials always quick to put every sort of illegitimate blame on us.”

Bhutia, who had a taste of a professional setup during his three-year stint with Bury FC in England, was determined to change the situation and the unveiling of the FPAI (Football Players Association of India) with him as its president has made the players fraternity united and powerful at last. “We needed a body of our own to fight for our cause. Most of the Indian players are not very educated. They are often taken for a ride by the clubs and others associated with the game. The FPAI has at last given the players a level playing field,” Bhutia says.

Bhutia feels that Sunil Chettri is champion material.-

Criticised by former players for being against Indian coaches, Bhutia clarifies that he has no angst against them. “I have no problem with Indian coaches. I just want the best and the most knowledgeable man for the job. We have to accept that Indian football is nowhere even in the Asian stage (forget the world). The players need to learn a lot to bridge that gap. The same applies for our coaches too,” he says. “I have learnt and benefited from all the foreign coaches. (Rustam) Akhramov changed my life by promoting me from a midfielder to a striker. But we had the best success under Bob Houghton.”

Praising the Englishman's professionalism, the ‘Sikkimese Sniper' says: “You will rarely see a coach of his profile coming and working hard in a country like India. He had the pedigree and knew his job well. He was strictly professional and did not believe in interfering with the personal space of his wards. He was only concerned with your performance on the field. The players loved him, trusted him and learned from him.”

Reminiscing on the highs of his international career, Bhutia is proud to give the instance of qualifying for Asia Cup 2011 after a gap of 26 years. “The most memorable moment was qualifying for the Asia Cup. It was a huge achievement. And as it happened in front of the home crowd, it was all the more sweet. As a kid I dreamt of playing in the World Cup. That hasn't happened as yet. So competing with the likes of Tim Cahill (Everton and Australia) and Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United and South Korea) was the biggest thing for me and the team,” Bhutia says. “I hope one day I can take my kids somewhere to watch India playing in the World Cup.”

Still in awe of the superior technical skill of I. M. Vijayan, who, he says, is the most gifted player he has seen in the country, Bhutia is positive about the future of the national side. “The current crop of players are a much professional bunch. They won't compromise on their training even for a day. Football is their bread and butter. I have high hopes on Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpeklua. There's plenty of talent around.”

Bhutia is eager to extend his hand to take the game further and has already set up a club, United Sikkim FC, and wants to streamline the League structure in India. “I am already the co-owner of United Sikkim and we have a lot of work ahead to make the club a force in the domestic circuit,” he says. “But I think we need to revamp the I-League structure so that it's not just confined to two states, Bengal and Goa. We need to spread it across the country and that should be out first task. I am willing to support Indian football in any way. I can be an office bearer in the AIFF (All India Football Federation) but I just don't want the post. I need to have a free hand and able administrators alongside to take the correct steps. A position without power to help football does not attract me.”

*** 'PLAYERS LIKE BAICHUNG COME ONCE IN 50 YEARS'

“It's the end of an era — the Baichung Bhutia era. After we left, another group led by the likes of Mohammad Habib, Subhas Bhowmick, Shyam Thapa, Sudip Chatterjee came. Bhutia came from my last batch of coaching and he was amazing from day one.” — P. K. Banerjee

“Players like Baichung come once in 50 years. It will be impossible to replace a player like him. We have to wait for another generation to get a player like Baichung. We had a great time playing for JCT and the national team.” — I. M. Vijayan

“He has scored some fascinating goals and some from great angles. What made him a great striker was that he knew the art of scoring goals and that's what matters in football.” — Jo Paul Ancheri

“I have known him since his early days when I was a cadet at TFA (Tata Football Academy) and he was playing for Tashi Namgyal. He is a very serious player on the field, but a complete prankster off it. We had some great times playing for the national team and the club. He was a great leader and never dithered from going for a one-on-one challenge.” — Rennedy Singh

“Qualifying for the Asian Cup was a big feather in his (Baichung's) cap. He was very competitive, dedicated and we all enjoyed watching him. He was one of the brightest stars to come out of India.” — Chuni Goswami

“He was an idol and led the country, club and state by example. Many youngsters follow him. I wish him all the best. Hope he continues to serve Indian football in some capacity.” — Manoranjan Bhattacharya

“Indian football has had a role model who has been positive. He was someone that all young and aspiring footballers could look up to. Having worked with Baichung for the last five years, I have been constantly aware of the great respect that players had for him, not only in India, but also around the continent and even beyond after his appearances in World XIs numerous times.” — Bob Houghton

“Baichung was a player of great stature. We have played together for many years and I have learnt a lot from him.” — Alvito D'Cunha

“He was more than a face of Indian football. He was really an inspirational footballer.” — Jose Barreto

“He was extremely focussed and played with a lot of tenacity. Every player has to leave some day. His day has come. I hope he serves AIFF in some capacity in the near future.” — Gautam Sarkar