As he nears the end of such a long journey with the India team, Bhaichung Bhutia does a lot of looking back and some looking ahead in this interview with HT over the phone from Gangtok. Excerpts:
Q) If someone told you last January that Bayern Munich would be involved in your farewell international match, how would you have reacted?
A. With disbelief. But then when I started playing for India I never thought I would last 16 years either. Just as I never thought I would dance in a reality show and win it. Life’s been full of surprises.
Q) Why is it that barring IM Vijayan, India footballers over the past two decades haven’t got a farewell but sort of faded away?
A) I think the player and the federation (AIFF) are to blame for this. Till recently, the kind of communication required for such a gesture seemed to be missing from both sides. And though this has changed now, the federation wouldn’t keep records. I never knew how many matches I played or the number if goals I scored till someone, usually a statistician from Kolkata, would point out one personal landmark or the other.
Vijayan was given a send-off at the Afro-Asian Games because he had discussed his retirement plans with the coach (Stephen Constantine). In this whole business, I think the coach and the player play very important parts. Trust me, it’s a big, big gap when it hits you that you won’t play anymore. I know people who have been hit by depression when big clubs, good money and the national team bypassed them.
I wanted to retire after the Asian Cup finals (January 2011) but injury came in the way. But I had been planning for retirement for nearly a year-and-a-half before that. I would meet people and bounce ideas beyond football. Luckily, United Sikkim (a club he co-owns) happened and I still play at the domestic level. When that too ends, I can always get a game with the boys, be at training etc and stay connected.
Q) Does such a send-off make up for the disappointment of missing out on the Asian Cup?
A) Not exactly. It’s great that this is happening but I would have loved to end it after a tournament and no tournament would be bigger than the Asian Cup. Having said that, I wasn’t part of the 23 for the Asian Cup so, in a way, I got lucky there too being able to play 15 minutes against South Korea. The game on January 10 makes me feel a bit like Ronaldo for whom the Brazilian federation organised a special farewell (against Romania last June).
Q) What would you rate as the biggest achievement in your India career?
A) Qualifying for the Asian Cup finals after 27 years. The only tournament bigger than that is the World Cup. When we qualified for the finals (by winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008), I had doubts whether I would make it. In the last week before the tournament, the coach (Bob Houghton) and I knew I wouldn’t but then it was found out that Sushil Singh has been banned for two games and no one had realised that. Subroto Dutta (senior vice-president AIFF) then managed to persuade the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and I was drafted in at the last minute.
The Asian Cup is a massive, massive tournament and it’s sad people in India don’t realise that. It is important for India to be present regularly at this tournament. Given that there are a number of players in the national team now who want to play abroad, it is a big stage. Taking nothing away from whatever else India have achieved, I would say that’s something you would never get by winning the SAFF Championships.
Q) And the biggest disappointment?
A) Not being part of the Asian Cup for more than 15 minutes.
Q) Bob Houghton made you change your mind and extend your international career. Was he the best coach you’ve played under?
A) Absolutely. Look at India’s performance under him: we won two Nehru Cups, the AFC Challenge Cup and qualified for the Asian Cup. And I was the Most Valuable Player in all those tournaments. We also played the SAFF championships final. So personally and for the team, Bob was the best coach we had.
Q) What made him special?
A) Look, to earn a player’s respect, the coach needs to know his game. With Bob, you leant something new everyday. I’ve been under coaches whose training sessions seemed a waste of time. Also, Bob never had the quality of players needed to make a dent at the Asian level. Let’s face it: you need players who are three times better than Bhaichung Bhutia at his best to do that and India could never give Bob such a pool. I thought he did remarkably well with the talent made available.
Q) Do you keep in touch with him?
A) Not being able to do that is one of my drawbacks. Even when he was our coach, I would hardly interact with him except at training camps and tournaments.
Q) Has Indian football moved forward in your time?
A) Slightly. When I started, we often travelled without reservation. I remember sleeping near the toilet in a train compartment once. Thankfully, that’s history. Also, with the I-League, I think we have taken a step towards being a professional set-up. Moreover, look at the number of internationals we have been playing over the past three-four years. There have been years when I would play only one international or none at all. The Nehru Cup has been revived and India now go training in Portugal or in Dubai.
Also, in my time IM Vijayan was the only quality player we had. Though not up to that level, the number of good players in the national team has now increased.
But so much still needs to be done. We are 162 in the Fifa rankings and while Bhutia may be a big name in India, the world at large doesn’t even know we play competitive football. We don’t have Indian strikers scoring 15-20 goals in the I-League, even I couldn’t. Sunil (Chhetri) too hasn’t been able to do that over the past few years. And we don’t have Indian midfielders winning seven-eight MoM awards regularly.
At this moment, Pailan Arrows, the federation’s development team, hasn’t won a match in the I-League and they are the national team’s best supply line. If your most talented under 23s are struggling in the domestic competition, how do you expect do make an impression in Asia in the next few years? Those boys need to grab their opportunities. It is one thing to say Mahesh Gawli or Climax Lawrence are over the hill but where are the players to replace them? The good news is that the under-16 boys have qualified for the Asian finals.
Q) Also, after Houghton left, the national team doesn’t seem to have any direction. Armando Colaco came and went and even Savio Medeira isn’t a long-term appointment.
A) That’s why I said in my argument in favour of the sports bill that we need more technical people to advise how federations are run. It is so important to select the right coach. If it’s Savio, fine, give him a longer reign then. If he isn’t, then the process of scouting for the right man has to be set in motion. I hope all that is being done now.
Q) Do you still regret that the Bury FC stint didn’t work out?
A) Big time. The first setback was joining them mid-season when my fitness level wasn’t the same as the rest of the squad. Then, the coach who signed me (Neil Warnock, now with Queens Park Rangers) left. As I settled down, I had a major knee injury and was off for six months. That meant I spent a really quiet last season and when that happens, your chances of looking for another club in England or Europe obviously diminishes.
Q) Why did you decide to start a club?
A) Like players, I think coaches in India lack exposure. We are nowhere in world football and that means we need to learn. To be able to do that, we need to have a better club structure. It is still badly disorganised. At our club, we want things done differently. At present, no one makes money from Indian football and through our club we want to change that. We hope to get corporates interested in football and not just for charity or as corporate social responsibility. That’s my dream now and I am fairly confident that I will succeed. To that end, it is important for United Sikkim to qualify for the top tier of the I-League. That’s our target this season.
Q) How difficult was it to leave Sikkim when you weren’t even 16 and come to Kolkata?
A) I was too excited to be worried. Getting an offer from East Bengal at 15+ made me overly, overly excited. Of course, the weather and the culture are so different but I couldn’t be bothered.