At home for a three-day break between training in Barcelona and reporting to New Delhi for the Nehru Cup, Bhaichung Bhutia spoke to HT on Saturday. Excerpts
Your India debut happened in the Nehru Cup (as a substitute against Thailand in 1995). Did you see yourself playing and leading the country 14 years after that?
With football you don't know whether you will be around for the next game and I am not the type who looks too far ahead. But I am glad that I am still around in 2009 and enjoying it.
Remember anything about your first match?
I came on as a sub in the last 15-20 minutes. It was a disaster (India lost 0-5) and I started in the next game, against Uzbekistan. I got my first goal for India, connecting a cross from the right with a diving header.
Will this be your last Nehru Cup?
Who knows, maybe in 2013 if I am still enjoying it and can contribute. But when you have been playing for 17-18 years, considerations like family influence your decision.
Would you lead India in the Asian Cup in 2011?
I would love too but that's 18 months away. I'm no longer 20 that my sole focus would be that tournament. But I'd rate qualifying for the Asian Cup as the biggest achievement of my career.
Being defending champions, playing at home and having prepared in Barcelona mean huge expectations.
It's normal. We have had a good preparatory tour too but then, Brazil went to the 1982 World Cup saying that this was their best team since 1970 and where did they go? I am not being negative but remember this is a knockout tournament. But that's not going to dent the upward curve we have managed over the past three years.
Forget rankings, I can say that we have now progressed to the next level and can match Syria, Lebanon and their likes. It will be tough for any team in Asia to beat us now.
You mean even top rung Asian teams like Japan and South Korea!
Yes. It will be tough for them too.
Your take on coach Bob Houghton saying Subrata Pal is India's best goalie.
Under him, Subrata's done really well. His contribution to our winning the Nehru Cup (2007) and the AFC Challenge Cup (2008) was massive. In Barcelona too, he was outstanding so I understand why Bob said what he did. Subrata conceded some bad goals too last season but we must realise that all players can have bad days.
Will Sunil Chhetri be available?
At the moment it's 50-50 and depends on how he stays in the next few days. Maybe, he can come as a sub in the group stages and be ready for the knockout rounds. Sushil (Singh), who is likely to play if Sunil doesn't, has had a great camp and though my understanding with him isn't as good as it is with Sunil, it's definitely improved over the past month.
Does the Ambedkar Stadium being used for Independence Day celebrations make you apprehensive about the turf?
It makes me sad but it's been that way ever since I started playing so it doesn't surprise me anymore. It also shows that India doesn't have even space for such programmes.
Post Barcelona, if you had to advise Indian clubs on infrastructure what would you tell them?
Get your own training ground with proper bathrooms and toilets. That's all I ask.
How much of a distraction is your current club situation?
I try not to let it bother me but, it does. I just hope it gets resolved. before the Nehru Cup.