Bhaichung Bhutia got candid about his experiences as a star Indian footballer in a different era and the hardships he faced during his time with the Indian national team, in an exclusive Facebook live chat with Indranil Basu from Sportskeeda. The Sikkimese sniper also talked about the improvements in Indian football since his retirement.
Bhaichung Bhutia, the former face of Indian football, also spoke about how far the game has come in India from players travelling in unreserved train seats to agents negotiating professional contracts with the Indian Super League clubs.
We have heard stories of Indian football players washing clothes and cooking their own food and the 43-year old confirmed the same.
Bhaichung Bhutia's arduous journey
Bhaichung Bhutia said, "iIn those days, it was impossible to get a reservation in trains. So, we often ended up traveling in third class unreserved seats in trains. Obviously, the federation wasn't that rich to give us airfare and good accommodation. We were all staying at SAI centers in different parts of the country."
He continued, "it was a challenging time, but we didn't really care as I was very excited to play for India. In fact, I travelled from Sikkim to Trivandrum, Kerala in an unreserved train seat as a 15-year old boy. Three days and three nights without a proper seat just to play for the country, when you have that love for the sport, you are ready to do anything."
Talking about the domestic football in those days, Bhaichung Bhutia said, "the clubs obviously were not professional in those days, they had bigger challenges, no sponsorships, no corporate support. They were lacking in terms of finances and players had to wait for payments, there were no formal contracts. Now, you have agents for players and the clubs are more organized. The life is definitely much better, but it can certainly improve."
The Indian footballing legend also discussed how Indian football has progressed in the last two decades.
He said, "the popularity of the sport has definitely increased. We get to see a lot of football right now on television including Indian football. We get to watch European leagues, Champions League, the World Cup, the Asian Cup as well. So, the interest has definitely gone up quite a lot and I think, we have made some progress infrastructure-wise and there is scope to improve a lot more.
Apart from that, the good thing is that, we have got a huge number of kids playing football in India compared to 10-20 years ago. That's a good sign because more kids playing the game means more scouting of young talent."
When asked about how important is it for different junior teams in India get to go on world tours and the Indian team goes out and plays in new countries for development, he said "It's important for them to travel and play matches outside India. You can't play all the time in India and progress as a footballing nation," Bhaichung Bhutia added.
'Exposure leads to growth'
Bhaichung Bhutia continued: "The good thing is that so many teams in India get to play a lot of matches. When we were preparing for the U-17 World Cup, these kids played 40-50 matches against top teams across the world over 2-3 years. That kind of experience is great for growth."
Talking about the role of science and technology in football, Bhaichung Bhutia said: "With time, technology plays a big role. What we had was very different and I am sure 5-10 years down the line, things will change even more. It's a welcome step for the technology to come in."
Bhaichung Bhutia went on to heap praise on the professionalism of the new generation of players coming through in Indian football.
He said: "The younger generation of players is much more professional as they take care of their health and body. It's a great move with the information and support social media is bringing in, this generation of player is well equipped and much more conscious of their health and fitness."
"Towards the end of my career, there was a bit of food science and training methods coming in. But anyways, I was a gymnast during my school days and played all kinds of sports in school, so overall fitness was quite natural and I was good flexibility-wise as well. All-round fitness for football is very very important", Bhaichung Bhutia concluded.