Sport -Q&A Baichung Bhutia
In many ways Bhaichung Bhutia is like a mirror in which we often see the reflection of Indian football. Having started his club career as a Day in Pics: January 8
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16-year-old East Bengal player in 1993 and making his international debut two years later, this Sikkimese striker represents India’s growth from a struggling nation to an emerging force, ready to earn respect of the footballing world.
He took Indian football to a new horizon when he became the first Indian to play professional football in Europe in 1999.
This 34-year-old Padmashri and Arjuna Awardee is now preparing for next year’s Asian Cup championship before bowing out of the game.
If such success generates hope, he is still saddened to note that a lot is left to be done in terms of promoting and packaging the game. Taking time off his busy schedule, Bhutia reflects on the changing face of Indian football.
How has football changed since you began your journey as a 16-year-old East Bengal player in 1993?
Everything has to change with the passage of time and it’s pleasing to note that Indian football has changed for the better over the past couple of decades. As a senior pro, I have noticed the biggest impact on the players’ mentality. We can now take the game as a career option and make a living out of it. Earlier, people played because of their passion for the sport but their main objective was to get a job, either in a government department or one of the corporate houses. And once they had the security of a job, their focus was lost. Fortunately, there has been a shift in this mindset. Players now know that they can earn enough money and take care of their families by playing football. That’s why they are hungry for success.
What has been the role of the AIFF?
The federation is doing its bit in developing and marketing the game. I have faith in the new president Praful Patel as he comes from a corporate background. He has his own ideas and he clearly wants to make things happen. But the biggest challenge for him would be to introduce a professional set-up in a short time. A lot of development projects are crying for his intervention. The problem is that we lack people with proper knowledge who can execute these projects. That’s why I want him to be surrounded by right, knowledgable people who can give him right advice as he tries to take Indian football to the next level.
The introduction of the I-League was certainly a step in the right direction…
Yes, of course. I-League was bound to happen. That’s how it boosts domestic structure everywhere. The only problem with the tournament is that it is still restricted to a few clubs, which means fewer players are being exposed to top-class competition. The rest of the country must be involved to give the tournament a truly national flavour. Secondly, the I-League should be held throughout the season. We have a time-frame for it, but look at top European countries like England and Spain where their best domestic competition is spread across the season. The I-League has to be based on an EPL-like structure. The more we will expand it, the better it would be for India’s future.
How has live television coverage helped the game grow?
There’s no denying the fact that we need right kind of exposure and television has certainly played a big role in it. It has also helped some of the corporate and business houses to touch base with the game. Players are also enjoying the benefit of being presented ‘live’ in various parts of the country where the game is still played at a very amateurish level. At the same time, we need to ensure that a proper atmosphere exists in the stadiums. There’s no point of showing a game live when it is played in front of empty stands
As many as five I-League sides have a foreigner as coach. So does the national team. Is it good or bad for Indian football?
The presence of foreign coaches doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed. We have equally good coaches in India but they need exposure and knowledge about modern football. For example, take the IT industry. The world is hiring IT people from India because they are better than the others. It’s the same with the foreign coaches. I don’t want to make any comparisons but most Indian coaches do not even have the required licenses to present their case. That’s where foreign coaches hold an advantage – they have a professional background and approach and they meet all FIFA or AFC criteria.
Each I-League team can now field three foreigners, one Asian and one PIO. Is there enough room for local players to showcase talent?
There’s no doubt that we have a number of quality foreigners currently playing here and they have certainly brought quality and raised the level of competition, but we need to strike a balance. The ball is in the AIFF’s court to ascertain how the balance of a team involving both national and foreign players, should be maintained.
In the current scenario, when can India emerge as an Asian powerhouse in football?
Look, if you get your child admitted to a good school with a good faculty and proper infrastructure, you will expect him/her to grow up and become a doctor or an engineer. Now suppose, if the school is not good, there is no infrastructure and the faculty is poor, can you expect your kid, no matter how bright he is, to excel in life? The same is the case with Indian football. We are struggling because we neither have the infrastructure, not the set-up to flourish.
Finally, how have you changed as a player and a person over these years?
I have seen a lot of things change in my time. I have experienced both good and bad moments and they have helped me grow as a player and as a person. The game has helped me accept challenges with a free mind. I’m still learning as a player. But as a person, I’m now more mature and mellow. And I am better off for it.
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