‘We are on the right track’

Raising the barBhaichung BhutiaPhoto: AFP

Raising the barBhaichung BhutiaPhoto: AFP  

This Children’s Day, Bhaichung Bhutia tells kids, ‘play football only if you love it’

He had a distinct style, unfettered, eye on the target, unerring, a joy inside the box. Joy if he happened to be on your side. Often the opponents would be left exasperated, chasing Bhaichung Bhutia’s shadow. With a feint movement dodge, like a seasoned boxer in the ring would evade a punch, he would lose his marker or two and slow the ball in. The cheers from the audience would invigorate him to repeat the act, much to the anguish of his opponents. Bhutia was such a delight to watch, in the same league as I. M. Vijayan.

The other day, at the book launch of Shaji Prabhakaran’s “Back To The Roots”, the mercurial striker of Indian football was in his elements, sharing his views on the past and future of the game in India, a game he played with great passion and hope. Bhutia was the face of Indian football. He still is. Sunil Chhetri is the poster boy that Indian football has tried to market but Bhutia remains the icon to be cherished. Chhetri and Bhutia have mutual admiration for each other. And why not? Football fans have seldom seen stars like them in a long time.

Former National coach Sukhwinder Singh once described Bhutia as the “most dangerous player inside the box.” He indeed was. Bhutia was also fearless, never hesitating to ask for the ball even when surrounded by two of three defenders. He would give them a slip and coolly create a goal, if not for himself, to a colleague lurking unmarked. Bhutia was dangerous when in possession with the ball. He was more dangerous when not in possession with the ball to because he would lure two or three defenders to chase him.

With due credit to Chhetri, the retirement of Bhutia has left a void. “Few like him. He brought dignity to the game,” observed noted commentator Ghaus Mohammad, who has followed Bhutia’s career from the time he came to play in the Limca Football Tournament as a teenager of promise. For Novy Kapadia, an authority on Indian football, Bhutia was the “much-needed impetus” and it worked too. A generation of young athletes took to the game because Bhutia created magic on the field.

Come to think of it, Bhutia had little opportunities to showcase his talent. “Just the Subroto Cup in Delhi and the National under-16 championship,” he recalled wistfully. “Today, the young footballers have so many opportunities. We (Vijayan and I) didn’t have any but we made the most of it. No complaints really.” But lack of infrastructure has been a huge barrier confronting the progress of the game.

“That’s the big challenge because infrastructure is the major part of any footballer’s success. He has to have access to proper field. That’s where the Government of India and the State Governments have to come together along with other stakeholders like the Federation and sponsors. To start off the government can allocate a good sports budget which unfortunately has not been too promising over the years. The honourable Prime Minister has plans for the next three Olympics and keeping in view the interest the government has shown the sports budget must increase. Once that happens it could be invested in infrastructure and spent on coaching, training and other related things,” said Bhutia.

India has no sporting culture. “I don’t think we don’t have football culture,” Bhutia was candid. “It may be there in very few states. It is important to have football culture. South American may be better in playing area but it has a huge culture for football. I have been there. In my state (Sikkim) we lacked infrastructure but people played football, spoke of football, we had inter-village contests, but beyond Sikkim I found nothing. There was just one state level tournament. Culture for football has to be across the country and not just limited to Sikkim, Mizoram or Manipur. You have to have many more kids playing football than we have now.

Aware of the constraints in promoting football, Bhutia suggested a way. “The state governments would have to prioritise sports quite a lot. Educating the state governments is also important. My state spends a lot of money on health care – treatment and insurance. But lot can be saved of they encourage sport at the school level. If your health is looked after, any kid would tend to lead a healthy lifestyle. The risk of getting ill and injured is reduced. If you focus on sports your health budget can be reduced and the money can be invested in infrastructure by the government. States can then ensure proper coaching and training to people who qualify for it. Lessons have to be learnt at the right time even if you are immensely talented. Or else you may get stagnated and lose out in the race to be the best,” he put things in perspective.

Bhutia was exceptional. He made a career in football because he had awesome talent and harnessed it with dedication. But what is the security for a normal kid to pursue the game. Bhutia averred, “Things have changed over the years. When I started playing football at East Bengal there were 90 per cent of the players with government jobs. That was huge security. But the basic aim of playing football then was to get a government job because it was a lifelong security. If he got injured the player did not have to worry about preserving his job. Not things have changed. I have seen people quit government jobs and play as professionals. The package for a footballer has become handsome, much better than what it was when I was starting off two decades ago. This has happened because sports has done well. Look at PV Sindhu, Sania Nehwal, Chhetri, Leander Paes. They have shown you can make a career in sport and not worry about getting a job somewhere. This change in the mindset of the players convinces me that we are on the right track.”

The much-decorated Bhutia quit active football in 2012. But he plunged into ploughing his experience back into the game by launching the Bhaichung Bhutia Football School (BBFS) which now has branches in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Jammu and Dehradun. The BBFS takes pride in conducting the biggest grass-root programme in India.

My last question to Bhutia brings a big smile on his face. Why would he ask a kid to play football in India, which languishes at 137. “Any youngster should play football only if he loves it from the core of his heart. And not because he wants to get a job by playing football. Playing football helps you stay healthy and if you play well it gives you a career, a good life. But play football only if you love it. There was no infrastructure when I decided to play football. I also could have played cricket which offered more money but I loved football and played football. It has given me a good life and great joy.”

Bhaichung Bhutia, with his football feats and a pleasant personality that inspires thousands of kids to love football, is the hope for a nation that was described by FIFA’s Director of Marketing Division, Thierry Weil, as a “sleeping giant” for the growth of football. India is also considered a big commercial market for the most beautiful game. As India prepares to host the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017, Weil emphasised during his recent visit that, “Research indicates that the commercial power is now shifting to Asia, and India and China are the key powerhouses…India is a sleeping giant for football.”

The day India wakes up from kits deep football slumber, Bhutia would celebrate the most. For he is the prime reason why kids are playing football. They love Bhutia. And love football…..

I also could have played cricket...but I loved football and played football. It has given me a good life and great joy

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