If Bundesliga testing protocol is followed, only cricket activity can resume in India: Bhutia
“Never imagined something like that,” says Bhaichung Bhutia.
‘That’ referred to whether he ever thought about how it would feel scoring a Kolkata derby hattrick in an empty Salt Lake stadium instead of one heaving with a record 1.31 lakh people like on July 13, 1997.
“The thing about that hattrick was the presence of people. That made it memorable, made the biggest moment of my entire football career,” says Bhutia referring to the Federation Cup semi-final when East Bengal stunned a free-scoring Mohun Bagan 4-1.
“But given the situation we are in, I would have accepted an empty stadium for that match,” says Bhutia, 43. “The show must go on; even if it means players don’t get that extra 15, 20% ‘josh’ from a full house. I have played to empty stands too. As a player you learn to adjust.”
Nine years since iconic forward retired, he is learning to adjust again – unmoored from his home in Gangtok and family in Kolkata, Bhutia has been living alone in his flat in Siliguri for over two months. “The plan was to go to Gangtok for a couple of days and return to Kolkata. But first West Bengal shut down (March 23) and then the country,” he says, over phone.
Lockdown necessary but…
For Bhutia, who twice contested elections for Trinamool Congress before floating the Hamro Sikkim Party in 2018, confining India was important. “But we should have given people three-four days to go home,” says the former India captain and Padma Shri who stayed away from a Beijing Olympic Games torch run because he didn’t support China on Tibet. “Now, we need to learn to live with Covid-19.”
His way of coping is eating healthy, drinking lots of ginger and lemon tea, and working out. A short exercise video Bhutia posted on Twitter in March ended —predictably —with him executing a bicycle kick and landing on his back on his living room sofa.
Sikkim has recorded a single Covid-19 case till May 28. “They are possibly testing less but call it an advantage or disadvantage, Sikkim is isolated. The airport’s shut most of the year (due to adverse weather), there are no trains and if you close two roads, you isolate the state,” he says.
With the country gradually opening, does he see competitive sport resuming? “That will depend on rules governments frame but if the testing protocols of Bundesliga and K-League are to be followed, maybe only cricket can re-start given the cost involved,” says Bhutia.
Bundesliga is committed to paying for around 25,000 tests on players and staff. South Korea’s K-League paid for testing players and staff and teams will have to monitor squads for the rest of the competition.
As India stayed indoors, IM Vijayan told Sunil Chhetri on Instagram that it would have been super had they played with Bhutia for India. “We would have raised a storm,” Vijayan said.
Bhutia and Vijayan’s international careers overlapped by nine years and they were at JCT for two seasons. Bhutia and Chhetri played six years for India and a season at Mohun Bagan in 2002. Between them, the trio has 128 international goals in 263 games.
“I know them well, on and off the pitch. I would any time buy a ticket and see Vijayan but if I had to sign a player, it would always be Sunil,” Bhutia says.
“The fan in me would always have fun watching Vijayan. But if I was a coach who wanted a player who would deliver consistently, it would be Sunil. He (Sunil) has successfully adapted to different situations.”
Also in the time of no sport, East Bengal’s football investors, who are leaving this month, announced players won’t be paid salaries for May. “Why would anyone want to exit on a sour note? It is not a massive amount,” says Bhutia who played nine seasons in a red-and-gold shirt and was the founding president of the Football Players’ Association of India. Including support staff, East Bengal’s first team’s monthly salary bill is around ~ 1.3 crore.
3+1 not okay for ISL
A former head of the technical committee of the All India Football Federation, Bhutia says having different rules on foreigners in the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League is all right. In 2020-21, ISL will allow five imports on the pitch and I-League four including an Asian.
“Now that we have accepted ISL as No. 1 league, let it continue like it is because it is important to have good quality. On the other hand, reducing imports in the I-League will give Indians a chance.” One way of increasing game time for Indians in ISL, according to Bhutia, is to loan them to I-League. That way Manvir Singh can play as striker instead of being used as a wide player at FC Goa, he says.
What does need work is expanding the season, says Bhutia. “The way to do it is to have more teams. Our season should begin early September and end late April.” ISL ran from October to March in 2019-20 and the I-League began on November 30.
“We also need a cup competition where a second division team to play an ISL team. The AIFF needs to push for this,” he says.
Before coronavirus ended the season early, AIFF decided not to have a cup competition. In 2018-19 too, it was marred by some I-League clubs boycotting it.
Bhutia says he is now waiting for two things: a chance to fly to Kolkata and restarting the Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools which has over 3000 trainees across India. The former should happen soon; the latter will take time.
“Most of our centres are in schools and colleges so opening them is not on us.” The terms for trainees will need to be extended, says Bhutia, adding that wages of all full-time coaches – nearly 60 – at BBFS are being paid.