Goal in sight
Two days back, he was sweating it out on the field. It wasn’t a high-tension match but he was screaming his lungs out at any miss-pass or failed chances. The nearly empty stands were a mute witness to the fact that perhaps football in India is on its death-bed. A few minutes later, the referee signalled substitution. As he walked off, the thin crowd clapped and chanted — ‘Baichung, Baichung’. He raised his hand in acknowledgement and got a standing ovation. The match went on, but with Bhaichung off the field, those present debated whether football in India still breathes because of this maverick genius? The debate may go on for long, but Baichung Bhutia, captain of the Indian football team, believes that it’s the other way round. “If there would have been no football, there would’ve been no Baichung,” he says. Sans football, Bhutia looks like any young man from the north-eastern part of the country. But on field, he transforms into a hunter, looking for that wild pass or a slow move on the enemy’s part. And to score, it requires more than the famous ‘Bend it like Bekcham’ turn. “Of course, it helps but as a forward you need to be alert, not always you’ll get an empty post, sometimes you’ve to convert those half-chances,” he affirms. Bend it or not, but Bhutia’s scorecard speaks volumes on his game. In fact, the Indian superstar had a chance to test his mettle against the now Galaxy star David Bekcham when he played in an exhibition match against Manchester United during his stunt in F.C. Bury. But for Bhutia, his most preserved moment is when he first played a league match in India. “I came all the way from a small village in Sikkim to play a match in Kolkata. I was only 15 and just being there was an overwhelming emotion,” he recalls. From his early childhood, Bhutia was passionate about football, he use to adore soccer superstar Maradona and skip classes to play football. “Those were the good old days at Tashi Namgyal Academy, Sikkim. We were so excited about each and every game ... often we played at night as well,” he says. Since then it has been a long journey for this small-town boy. Bhutia is now one of the highest paid footballer in India. He has crossed several landmarks, such as being the captain of Team India and the only Indian footballer to play professional club soccer in England. “That was a great experience. Not only it widened my horizon, but I learnt a lot as well,” he affirms. Bhutia believes that the team is now in a development phase. “We had a good preparation this time. We all have played for different clubs but not as a team and during the last few months, the outings have helped us to gel better. You can see that bonhomie among players. It’s essential if we’ve to win,” he says. So, will team India go on to win the Nehru Cup? “I wish so. But realistically, I’ll say that India, Syria and Kyrgyzstan have a strong chance,” answers Bhutia. But ask him about the dilapidated state of Indian football and Bhutia becomes emotional. “I know we are far behind in rankings (India’s current ranking is 162) but we haven’t played much of international matches. In the last decade, teams from Japan and China have done exceedingly well. What we lack here is a system. The clubs are playing for themselves and the associations are fighting for their own cause. We have to ask ourselves whether we want to win the local tournaments or make a mark in the international scenario,” he erupts. Talk of his on-field rivalry with nippy striker Sunil Chhetri and Bhutia explains: “Football is a team game. If I want to be a star, I want my team-mates to support me.”Well, nothing less can be expected from the captain and perhaps that’s why the debate is still on.