Former National Team captain Bhaichung Bhutia stands out as one of the most iconic names to have worn the Indian National Team jersey. The 42-year-old, who is now a politician, has appeared for the national team 107 times and has scored on 42 occasions.
In a freewheeling interview, the Sikkimese Sniper as he was fondly called, speaks his heart out about the present Indian squad, India’s chances in the forthcoming AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, the way forward, his pairing with IM Vijayan, Sunil Chhetri and much more.
India are pooled alongside hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A and they open their campaign against Thailand on January 6 in Abu Dhabi.
How different was it playing with IM Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri? Who did you enjoy partnering the most?
I feel lucky and privileged to have played with both. When I made my debut, Vijayan was a senior player and I was very happy to play under his guidance, combine with him on the pitch, and get his support. When Sunil came in, he was the younger one. We had a great understanding and a healthy competition amongst ourselves.
Who was the better one?
Both of them are very different in their style of play. I cannot choose who was the better one. I just consider myself to be lucky to have played with two talented forwards of their respective generations.
With Sunil Chhetri leading the side, how would you rate India’s chances in the AFC Asian Cup 2019?
I feel it’s a good group to be in – with Thailand, UAE and Bahrain. I think we have a 50-50 chance of making it to the second round. It will all depend on the hard work the boys put in, and a little bit of luck. I urge the team to give their all, and leave no stone unturned. They should enjoy the atmosphere of being part of such a big tournament.
What has been your most memorable moment with the National Team?
It has to be securing qualification for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011.
How was your experience of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup? Is that your biggest regret till date that you stayed injured?
It was wonderful -- not the greatest one since I was unfit and could only play some minutes in our last game. Overall, it was an incredible experience competing against the best teams in Asia, and it is the level that we need to be on a regular basis.
I have no regrets and I’m just happy that we qualified after a long gap of 27 years. It was just bad luck that I couldn’t take as much part as I wanted to.
What’s the significance of an Asian Cup?
It’s obviously great that you get to share space and hotels with some of the greatest players in Asia and world football. As a player, you dream about playing against such opposition. These are the moments we footballers live for as the entire continent, and even the world is watching you!
What’s the way forward after the Asian Cup?
Our next target will be the next tournament we play. However, the long-term vision has to be playing at every Asian Cup after this, and not missing out on any of the future editions.
If the Indian teams from 2011 and 2019 are to hypothetically face off in a match – what do you think the score would be? How do you compare both the teams?
I would need to toss a coin to decide that! (laughs) Both teams are equally strong and it’s impossible to pick a winner.
What changes would you say you have seen in the style of football from your time? How would you model your game to adapt to the way players play these days?
I don’t think I would change much in my own game. But yeah, players nowadays are more tactically aware and have a better understanding of their individual responsibilities in the team which are clearly marked out.
What are your thoughts on the recent changes in terms of league structure and finances in Indian football?
The impact has been tremendous. There has been an increase in the general level of interest in the game and the clubs have become much more well-organized and professionally run than before. More and more youngsters are getting involved in the game and the number of games being shown on national television have also gone up hugely.