MEMORABLE MOMENT: Baichung Bhutia receives the Padma Shri award from President Pratibha Patil at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.
NEW DELHI: From a nondescript field in Pakyoung, east Sikkim, to the Ashoka Hall in Rashtrapati Bhawan to receive the Padma Shri award, it has been an eventful journey for this pocket dynamo of Indian football. Baichung Bhutia is a glowing icon of a sport that has a truly universal appeal.
At 32, he is not that swift as he used to be. But he is as crafty, as focussed, as motivated, and as humble as ever.
Ask him why the game is languishing in his country, Bhutia ponders for a while but refrains from speaking his mind. His inner self is in turmoil. He wants to fight but appears helpless. “We need good infrastructure, a sound administrative system, an effective development programme,” is his simple response.Same old story
The administrators cannot promise anything. Nothing has changed from the time he kicked the ball for the first time in the National championship 16 years ago.
Bhutia asserts there is “enormous talent” and India has the “potential” to emerge as a football nation. It needs to gain momentum like cricket. Why cannot football be marketed like cricket? Why cannot Bhutia force a change. “I would love to change the system. But I can’t explain how.”
When probed further, Bhutia opens up. “It is difficult for a kid to learn proper football. There are no well-organised academies barring the Tata Football Academy. And then the system doesn’t support such academies. Sincerity is missing.”
Bhutia reiterates, “Believe me we have the talent. I have seen talent overseas and at home and we are not far behind. But we don’t know how to hone talent. I know many talented ones losing it in schools and academies because of faulty coaching. You can’t ask a 10-year-old kid to run 10 to 20 laps. He must learn to enjoy first before accepting the hardship of training as part of his schedule.”
And why is that? Bhutia smiles, “Again it is the system, the set up, the attitude, the tactics, the fitness regime. It is a combination of a lot of things. Hockey did not get the support of the masses in our country. You need fame and money to attract sponsors. It is a vicious circle really. To attract sponsors you need to do well and you can do well only when you have the security of your career and that can come only from sponsorship. Kids have to be ensured of a future if you want them to take up football as a career.”Suggestions
Bhutia confided he would love to see 14 teams in the I-League, instead of 12. “The AIFF is looking to expand the I-League and cut down on some traditional tournaments, it can make the league more broad-based and allow more players to show their prowess.”
He also suggested that the AIFF should allow clubs to sign four foreigners as earlier and not three. On receiving the Padma Shri here on Saturday, Bhutia said, “It is the biggest honour for me. It means a lot for football in India and it also gives the game a huge boost. It is an honour for an individual in a team game but to me it is something to be shared with all my colleagues from day one. I remember each one of them.” Even those from the first time he kicked the ball in Pakyoung.