From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.36 :: Sep. 05, 2009

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FOOTBALL / INTERVIEW

Long road ahead

Bhaichung Bhutia is miffed at the state of affairs of football in India. “It continues to be a popular sport, but is directionless,” he says in a chat with Vijay Lokapally.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Even at 32, the Sikkimese sniper is as acrobatic as ever.

Bhaichung Bhutia is one of the most sought after sporting icons in the country. His recent success in a television reality show has given him a new status as a dancing star, different from the art he portrays on the football field. In this interview with Sportstar, Bhutia, who loves standing up for his colleagues, speaks on various aspects of football.

Question: What do you think of the state of Indian football?

Answer: I began in 1993 and almost 17 years down the line I don’t think much has changed in terms of infrastructure and development of the game. It is sad. It also makes footballers angry. When you lack the basic requirements how do you expect the game to develop? It continues to be a popular sport but is directionless. We need more professionalism, more accountability. It would not be wrong to say that it is a sad state of affairs. Even the big clubs do not have their own training facilities. Big clubs don’t have proper training grounds. Despite this the quality of football has improved. We have the I-League now and that is a good thing for the game. But much, much more needs to be done.

How have things changed after Bob Houghton took over as coach?

Bob has been a major factor. His influence has been huge and it can be seen in the manner in which we are playing football and also the way the team is being treated. His knowledge and experience is really amazing and has helped us grow as players. We are always keen to interact with him and learn from him. Every training session is an education and that to me has been the biggest gain. You want to learn and improve and he looks at players beyond the pitch too. He is there to guide you and nothing makes him happier than a player improving his game.

What do we lack apart from infrastructure?

As far as I am concerned, infrastructure is the key. And then we have to look at making the game popular among the youth. We just don’t have an effective youth development policy. You can progress as a football nation only if your youth play it on a mass scale. And once that happens, you have to ensure quality coaching. I have been hearing this talk of grass root level coaching ever since I started understanding things but sadly nothing has changed.

Where have we gone wrong?

Personally, I feel the system has been a let-down. Look at the system of signing a player. In Kolkata, it continues to be archaic where you collect a token and deposit it with the club officials. It is laughable. This should change. Then there are so many other issues but I don’t wish to discuss them now.

What is the importance of technical excellence?

It is the most important component of football. Height, speed and skill are essential for you to succeed at the international level. You can’t escape the fact that height makes a lot of difference. I can say for myself that I would have been far more successful if I was taller than what I am. If I was six feet tall I could have been a better footballer. Height and power can make a psychological difference to your entire approach to the game. It can boost your confidence because body play is crucial in football. You can’t understand the importance of technical excellence from outside. You know the difference it can make only when you face a situation.

How do you view the club versus Federation tussle?

It has always been there. I have seen things drifting for too long. It is time this tussle is sorted out. Why should there be pressure on the players when we are still engaged in the development process. It may be a slow process but we are all making an effort and such tussles do not help anyone. How does it help anyone if East Bengal or Mohun Bagan wins the IFA Shield 10 years in a row? What matters is what you achieve for the national team. When the national team does well, it benefits Indian football. When a club does well, it only benefits the club. To me, the national team doing well is far, far more important than a club winning some title.

Are you convinced we have quality coaching in India?

It has to improve drastically at the grass-root level. You can’t allow a kid to grow up with faulty playing methods. You have to be cautious. They can lose interest in the game from an injury or failure or faulty learning style. A kid can also lose interest if he finds the load of training difficult to handle. Our coaches need more exposure. There is no harm in going and learning overseas. Do we not have brilliant students from other countries coming to India to learn information technology. We have to keep pace with the changing trends in coaching.

What is the best way out?

I think it is for the administrators to sit down and work in unison to take the game forward. These are times of proper marketing and we have to quickly join the race and attract corporate sponsorship at all levels. It is not difficult if we make honest efforts.

How close has football been to you?

It has been everything. Football has been my life. Football has given me everything that I have today. It is very, very close to my heart. I have sacrificed everything for football and I can do anything for the sake of football.

Memories of early years?

I grew up dreaming of playing football for the big clubs in Calcutta. East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting… I had heard so much about them. I would create matches in my mind, situations where I would be saving my team with some sensational goal. But I must confess that when I first came to Calcutta to play I was hugely disappointed by what I saw. The infrastructure that I saw was not what I had expected.

What if you had not played football?

Honestly, I never had the time to think. Normally, you look to plan your career after you finish your school and I had taken to football much before I had the chance to plan an alternate career. I always wanted to play professional football. Maybe, if not a footballer I would have pursued a career in the police force. I had once looked at the Indian Police Service as an option too but then football pushed it back.

How can you popularise football in India?

The national team has to do well for the game to win the support of the masses. We have to assure parents that a career in football can be lucrative and they must encourage their kids to play football. And that can happen only when the national team does well. The All-India Football Federation is doing an excellent job and we need to deliver too as players.

Your views on the Football Players’ Association of India (FPAI)?

It was needed to guide and support the players and also educate them on many aspects of life. Many of them don’t know how to make the most as a professional. We aim to help a player plan his career even after he gives up playing. There is so much to do in this field. Things like signing a contract. Many players don’t even know what they sign for. We want to make sure the future generation of players get proper guidance as they move up in their career. This is not a body to confront the administrators. This is an association that aims only to help footballers at all levels of the game.

What does the status of an icon mean to you?

It makes me more responsible. It means I have to work harder because the job comes with a lot of responsibility. The players will look up to me. I have to stand up for the players because they feel my voice will be heard. I can’t allow injustice to my players on or off the field. India is not England where the Football Players’ Association is so strong and active. I want to work for footballers even after I stop playing. Tomorrow, I don’t want to look back with regret that I did not help my mates when I could have. I don’t want to be guilty of that. I would request all football lovers to log on to www.fpaofindia.com and share their views and promote our venture (the website of the FPAI).



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