GANGTOK, March 18: "One should never forget one's roots," Baichung Bhutia said somewhere during the flurry of felicitations Sikkim had organized to celebrate his Padmashree award. It was but expected that the star striker should end up where it had all begun for him.
After the long journey and the many stopovers, you would have expected the tight embrace of fatigue when he reached Tinkitam Tam with wife Madhuri and their pug Max on Monday afternoon. Instead, he suddenly seemed to have been revitalized. He had a cousin's marriage to attend and Bhutia was soon getting himself ready for the party. In a bokhu (traditional a traditional Sikkimese dress) — "this is the same one I wore during my marriage" — Bhutia hopped into his car and drove Madhuri and mother Doma Dorjee Bhutia to his aunt's place. TOI found a front seat as the India captain negotiated the sharp turns and wicked bends. Excerpts:
Your first visit to Tinkitam after getting the Padmashree. Must be feeling great.
Every year I come but this visit is special for me — 'Padmashree' Baichung visiting his parents. The reception at Rongpo was also fantastic. I am really grateful to the people of Sikkim.
There is so much tranquillity here...
I generally come here after a football season. The grind that I go through in Kolkata sometimes gets to me. I come here to recharge my batteries. I like the serenity of the mountains. Unlike people in the plains, people here are very laid back. I do lose my temper on the football pitch these days; after 15 years in the plains I suppose I too have picked up some of the traits.
When you first left Tinkitam did you ever think of becoming the face of Indian football?
Never. I just wanted to be good footballer. Dreamt of wearing the national jersey one day. God was very kind to me. I was not very ambitious. I just wanted to play the game I was in love with. It was only after 1997 that I felt I was making a name for myself.
Are you scared of failure?
I never allowed success and failure to rule my life. I have always taken life as it came. Whenever I have a bad match I try to forget it. It's no point mulling over what could have been.
This success, the adulation... Who do you think played a major role?
My parents, my brother (RD Bhutia) and also the coaches I have played under. I can't pinpoint one person. Everybody played a role in shaping me.
Tashi Namgyal Academy would have also played a big role...
Of course. It helped me respect my opponents and be faithful to the game. It taught me to be disciplined. Manas Chakraborty, my first coach, was also a very important man early in my career.
You got very emotional during the reception at the TNA.
I have some many memories there. While travelling from Delhi to Ajmer, the tournament where I was first noticed, most of the TNA players didn't have reserved ticket. So Manas sir and some of the boys threatened to travel sitting on the roof! Finally, the TT agreed to give us berths and the players came down. It was hilarious.
What's wrong with Kolkata football; hardly anything to write home about in the last four years?
The clubs have to change their mentality first. They still think supporters will keeping coming when worldwide clubs are reaching out to increase the fan base. They are caught in a ridiculous time warp; times are changing but Kolkata clubs are not.
Why do you think fans stopped coming to the grounds?
Poor facilities is clearly one of the reasons. Leaking pipes, shoddy toilets, no parking space... who will come? You tell me, would you want to take your family out for a soccer match in Kolkata? It's so lousy.
But still there is passion amongst the fans....
Exactly. The clubs are taking this passion for granted. They are going for small term gains while losing the bigger picture.
You sound very upset with the set-up?
Upset, because I love Kolkata. I want to see Kolkata football regaining its lost glory. People in Kolkata are much more pragmatic and enterprising now. The city is also very happening. If everything is going in the right direction why should football go the other way?
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Ten years back I didn't know I would be a Padmashree one day. So, how can I say where I will be in 2018? But one thing is for sure: I will be at a place where I can make changes. I want to be a decision-maker whose views will be taken seriously and ideas executed well.
Like All India Football Federation chief?
I know you want a headline (laughing). Seriously speaking, I am still learning the nuances of football administration. I will say I haven't planned my future yet. I can have my own company, can be with football also. We will wait and see.
Lastly, what's the immediate plan?
I am taking my parents to Sydney where my brother stays. I'll be returning after a fortnight and heading straight to the national camp.