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 October 18, 2002 | 1600 IST

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The Rediff Interview / Baichung Bhutia

'India now has its best side
in a long time'

Between cricket and football, Indians, quite unambiguously, choose the gentleman's game. But soccer remains the sport that most Indians love to watch, so long as India is not playing. However, one man, who hit the Indian soccer scene about a decade ago, is changing the queer indifference with which the game is viewed in the country. He has himself attained star status and is taking football to new heights of popularity.

Baichung Bhutia Meet Bhaichung 'The Scorpion' Bhutia, the face of modern Indian football.

Bhutia, who hails from a remote village in Sikkim, stormed the football scene as a diminutive 16-year-old, emerging the 'Best Player' in the 1992 Subroto Cup. His scintillating performance three years later in the Nehru Cup cemented his place in Indian football. Having seen all that had to be seen in Indian soccer, he then looked West-ward, and two summers ago became the first Asian-born player to score a goal in an English professional league while playing for Bury FC. Before joining Bury, the nimble-footed striker unsuccessfully tried his luck with Fulham FC, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion.

Bhutia spoke to M. Chhaya about his extraordinary journey from a sleepy Sikkimese village to the glamour world of English Premier League and much more:

Indians pay to watch world soccer, but not Indian football. Why?

Of course, we have a lot of catching up to do to compare with global soccer powerhouses, but to say that Indian football attracts no attention in India would be wrong. The game has not been marketed the way, say, cricket has been. It's about marketing a brand; football as a brand. That has not happened. But I feel things are changing and so is the Indian attitude to Indian football.

Where does Indian football stand vis--vis the global standard of the game?

I must say we have improved during the past few years. We have talent, but lack in proper guidance and a scientific training regimen towards attaining international standards of physical strength, mental toughness and skills. We can do a lot better if we have a proper grassroots training system and facilities. In the international arena, the training programme is much more scientific. The stress should also be on quality coaching and international exposure that will throw open the Indian players to aggression.

Talking of coaching, how do you rate present national coach Stephen Constantine?

I have said it before that he is a very good coach, and has a very good rapport with the boys. His methods of illustration are novel. The team's performance under him has gone up, and we performed very well in LG Cup in Vietnam. I think India has its best side in a long time.

You have trained under some good coaches. How will you rate them?

I started off under Manas Chakraborty in Tshasi National Academy. Later, I came under Syed Nayemuddin, P K Banerjee, Sukhvinder Singh, Rustam Akramov, Manoranjan Bhattacharjee, and the coaches at Bury FC. All of them are good in their own ways, but the foreign coaches are technically better equipped.

You have played most of your football in India with East Bengal. Any special reasons?

Well, I also did play for JCT, Phagwara, for sometime. But, yes East Bengal got close to my heart and I enjoyed playing for the club. But look, now back in India, I'm playing with Mohun Bagan this season, and I'm enjoying it too.

Baichung Bhutia How was the Bury FC experience?

I planned to move on to the international scene because I wanted my game to grow after having played at the highest level in India. I started looking for openings in the English Premier League, and Bury happened. I was given a three-year contract, and the coach worked a lot on my fitness and strength. It was playing in Bury that I was actually exposed to the toughness of European soccer.

Any favourite game?

Yes, the one against Manchester United. I was given a chance to play in about 40 matches.

How does it feel to be back playing for a Kolkata club?

Good. I want to use the experience and skills that I have picked up during the Bury stint, both for my country and my club. Our immediate aim is do beat Valencia in their home game (in Maldives, in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League) on Tuesday. [The first leg meeting between the teams in Kolkata ended in a 2-2 draw]

What do you think about the clash between club interest and national duty?

It is the greatest honour to play for the country. It is a problem that exists in almost all soccer-playing countries. (The All-India Football Federation has recently announced that it would prepare a calendar next season so as to accommodate both national and club engagements without any clash of dates.)

What are your future plans?

I'll be happy if I'm able to do something for Indian football even after I retire from the game. I have ideas and plans that I want to implement to the benefit of the game in the country.

(Bhutia has offers to play in the North American major league, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and even Belgium).

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