Bhaichung Bhutia feels that Indian Super League is helping attract more and more youngsters to football and believes if we continue to take the right steps the Indian team might play in the FIFA World Cup very soon.
Bhaichung Bhutia also talked about his spell as captain of the national team, his retirement, Sunil Chhetri and how big a factor money is in Indian football currently during a Facebook Live chat with Indranil Basu from Sportskeeda.
Let's dive into what Bhaichung Bhutia had to say on issues such as India's potential to play in the World Cup in the future, whether Bhaichung Bhutia could be the AIFF president and more.
Bhaichung Bhutia opens up
Q. Do you think India will ever play in the FIFA World Cup in their lifetime?
Bhaichung Bhutia: You never know. Nothing is impossible. If North Korea can play in the World Cup, it's not entirely impossible for a country like India to play in the World Cup. You are not gonna play the World Cup just by sitting, a footballing culture needs to be cultivated in India. The younger parents are now concerned about their kids playing sports and the coronavirus can change people's attitudes towards maintaining health, staying fit and playing sports.
Q. When you were the captain of the Indian national team, you were at the peak of your game. Can you give us a brief run through that journey?
Bhaichung Bhutia: It was a great honour to captain the Indian team. To play for India is the ultimate aim for every footballer in the country, and to captain the national team is another big honour. When I was the captain, Indian football was in transition from a semi-professional to a more organized form of the league with the I-League coming in. The clubs were getting sponsors, but they were still facing a lot of challenges financially.
As the captain, I had to motivate the players to play well and make sure that future generations don't struggle with off-field issues. So when I came back from England, I started the Football Players Association to make sure the players have a platform to come and speak as one voice. I have always spoken from the heart which has not always gone down well with the federation, state associations and my club bosses.
Q. You have seen Sunil Chhetri build his career and he has been an exceptional captain for the national team. What are your thoughts on him?
Bhaichung Bhutia: He has done fantastically well. He has come in and given everything he has. The great thing about Sunil is that he is a really professional boy, he takes care of his health, he is always working out and does his extra training as well.
He maintains his fitness and looks after his body very well and it is very very important. At the age of 35, he is very strong and as fit as any 18-year-old boy. You need to be sure that you are mentally prepared to work hard and have that hunger to play at the top level and that can only happen if you are completely committed and fit.
Q. How instrumental has ISL been in getting things right in Indian football?
Bhaichung Bhutia: It has definitely contributed to the growth of Indian football. A tournament like ISL is good because we get to watch Indian players every week and they are getting coached by some of the best coaches in good infrastructure at their clubs.
They get to compete with a lot of good foreign players and that has definitely helped the Indian team. They are tactically more aware of the shape they are playing in and their tactical positions. They are more confident whenever they go to play against a foreign country.
Obviously, the Indian Super League clubs have to better their infrastructure, they have to work at the grassroots level. More teams need to be a part of the league, the season has to be a bit longer. Relegation and promotion will be introduced in a few years and that will make the competition harder.
With ISL being acknowledged as the bigger league, a lot of I-League clubs including Mohun Bagan and East Bengal want to play in the ISL. Having said that, the promotion-relegation system is very important because for a club like Sikkim United playing in the I-League second division, you need that hope that if we play at our peak, we can play in Asia and that helps in bringing in investors and sponsors.
Q. Money is a huge drive for sports in India. Do you think it's the right culture?
Bhaichung Bhutia: Money is definitely important. When you are playing for your country, you need your life to be secure and at the same time, money shouldn't be in the player's head, the balance needs to be there.
With money coming in, the parents would feel comfortable with their kids pursuing football as a career. With money, comes in better infrastructure and a better grassroots system for the players to come through.
For players, it's very important to put your heart into it. If you are earning 10 crores and not enjoying it, you are gonna have a very short career.
Q. How tough was it retiring from the game?
Bhaichung Bhutia: Retirement was something which didn't go the way I want. And that is something you have to accept, everything you want is not going to happen. I wanted to captain the team in Asia Cup in Doha, do well and retire.
But, I was injured 3-4 months prior to the tournament, regained fitness and then got injured again. Even before the tournament, I wasn't completely fit and ended up playing 25-30 minutes against Korea in the last match and that was the end of my international career.
I worked on my fitness and came back but by then, Bob Houghton had retired and the boss of Audi India offered to bring Bayern Munich to India to play in my retirement match and I didn't know what to say or feel. When you play Bayern Munich, one of the best teams in the world, you are scared about having a disastrous last game before retirement but you are also excited also because one of the best teams is coming to play for you.
I wasn't 100% fit for that match also but I ended up playing 85 minutes and to get that honour and respect from Bayern was very special.
Q. Do you prefer coaching or commentating on the game?
Bhaichung Bhutia: I don't think I am ready for the commitment to the sport right now. After playing for 35 years, I don't know if I can commit 365 days of my year to a tough job like coaching, watching players, making tactics and helping gel everything together. In India, that system is not possible. No coach gets the liberty to keep a team for 3-4 years, as half the squad changes every year, so it becomes challenging.
Q. With Sourav Ganguly heading the BCCI right now, will we see Bhaichung Bhutia as the AIFF president in the near future?
Bhaichung Bhutia: It's easier for Sourav to be the president of BCCI because he has the support system and he has the finances on his side. For football, you have to reach the highest authority to convince them to get things done and it's a much more challenging position. Lots of sports federations in India have got influential politicians at the helm because they get things done.
We need politicians in federations to get things done and for decision-making to be more swift. I would love to be the president of the All India Football Federation one day. In future, if there is an opportunity, I will consider it but I am not ready right now.
It will indeed be interesting to see Bhaichung Bhutia step into sports administration in the future. With that answer, the Indian football legend ended his exclusive chat with Sportskeeda.