Indian football’s talismanic striker, Bhaichung Bhutia, may have been dropped by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) from the list of probables for the World Cup qualifier against the United Arab Emirates later this month, but he has enough on his plate. Bhutia, who struggled with recurring injuries most of last season, is the only active player to own a club, the United Sikkim Football Club, and his focus is on changing the fledgling club culture in India with the team. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You were dropped from the team for the first time in 15 years, but you’ve already earned a recall for the series against Pakistan to be played in England next month.
I am willing to go provided I regain my fitness. I am always there for the national team, and no one can question my commitment. It’s about playing for India, not the AIFF. I’m working hard to get the injuries sorted out and regain fitness. If my body responds well enough to the rehabilitation and practice, I will surely go.
Is this perhaps a compromise from the AIFF after you were dropped from the national team?
Why do you see it like that? I wasn’t fit when the new coach (Armando Colaco) selected his team. For the last 10-11 months, I have been troubled by fitness problems. What surprised me was I wasn’t even informed that I am not part of the team. Besides me, Renedy (Singh), Sur Kumar (Singh) and N.P. Pradeep were also dropped. But why is it so difficult for coaches in India to at least inform the senior players? The problem is that coaches here are poor in man-management.
What are the injuries that have been troubling you for so long?
I’ve got a calf muscle tear, plus the hamstring also has a muscle tear. I’m desperate to regain fitness quickly, but it all depends on the next three months. If I can make it to the England tour, and also play the Fed Cup for United Sikkim, I will be ready to be back in the national side.
Jeje Lalpekhlua, the under-23 striker who replaced you in the national squad, is being touted as the next big thing in Indian football. People are drawing comparisons with you—does that bother you?
People are welcome to draw comparisons. Jeje is a good prospect, and it is only fair he gets his due. But I am not bothered by that. If I am fit, I can walk into any team, and I believe in myself. My challenge is not with any young, new player. I don’t feel threatened.
You have shifted base to your home state Sikkim and formed a new club, the United Sikkim Football Club (USFC). How did that happen?
United Sikkim has been my dream project for quite some time. In India, the club football structure hasn’t changed with time. We were once considered a force to reckon with in Asia, and few were ahead of us. Take, for example, Qatar’s progress. They weren’t even on the scene when India held a big position in Asian soccer and, today, they are in line to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup. The infrastructure, the basic system, technicalities, they have worked on everything. It starts at the grass-roots level. I want to bring in professionalism in India with United Sikkim. In five-six years, I want to make it a really big club, not just in India, but in Asia. I want to show people willing to invest in the game that football too can be a commercial success. I have got everything going for me in this venture. But if USFC fails, then not many will succeed, and that will be bad for Indian football.
Player’s club: United Sikkim Football Club players practise in Gangtok.
How has the USFC fared so far?
We are a new club. It was so difficult to even get players when we started, since it was already mid-season. It was so hard and frustrating to convince established players to join USFC. That’s when I resolved that I am in this for the long haul. Where else in the world would you have national players like Renedy Singh, M. Suresh, N.S. Manju, and Sushil Singh playing for a second-division club? So we have made the right start.
The USFC has an interesting mix of players—what went into planning the team?
Last year, we started mid-season, so it was difficult to get the players I had in mind. But this year, we have got new players. We now have more than 20 new recruits. The North-East produces many talented boys, and we are trying to get the best. This club will be a big brand for the North-East. The game has to grow beyond Kolkata and Goa, that’s when it becomes popular. I used my contacts and friends to source foreign players like the Namibian Quinton Jacobs, who has played in the Scottish League as well as in Germany and Norway. Players like Japan’s Mitsuki Ichihara and Ireland’s Joseph Lapira will bring in a huge amount of experience, a fresh perspective and professionalism.
The USFC also has exciting talent like Budhiram Tudu. Who are the ones to watch out for?
Tudu won Bengal the Santosh Trophy this year. He is one of the best new talents I have seen. He was with East Bengal last year, but surprisingly, didn’t even get a game. He came here on loan, and played really well. He has gone back to East Bengal this season. We spotted Bikram Gill, an 18-year-old boy from my football school in Delhi (The Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools). The Portuguese coaches referred him to me. After I saw him at the trials, I knew he was one for the future. Nim Tshering Lepcha, Basant and Tenzing Tsephel are all good talents.
The USFC failed to qualify for the I-League in its first season. How did the team react?
We played beyond our expectations even though we missed out on qualifying. This season, our target is to qualify for the I-League because that is where we should be playing. If we play well to our abilities, we may even win the Fed Cup this season.
Club football in India is facing an existential crisis. Established clubs like JCT and Mahindra United have folded up. How confident are you about the USFC?
The lack of professional structure is hurting Indian club football. It was shocking to see JCT being scrapped like that. It has been relatively good so far for us. The Sikkim government has been cooperative. We will be given 30 acres of land to build our own stadium. The day we get into the I-League’s top division, it will get even better.
You started your journey at the Paljor Stadium in Gangtok, Sikkim. How does it feel to be back there?
It was an emotional homecoming for me. Initially, though, it was difficult and tiring. In a sense, it is like starting my playing career all over again. When we travelled to Shillong for the I-League second-division matches, the daily allowance from the AIFF was Rs 750 per player. You had to manage food and hotel in that amount. But we spent from our own pocket, that’s because these boys here have come to pursue a dream. You need to make them feel wanted, you need to give them the best of facilities. I know it is going to be tough financially, but we have the confidence that United Sikkim will one day be a major force in Indian football. No club makes money in India, they all run through sponsorship. Every year, you need between Rs 4 crore and Rs 15 crore to run a team. Someday we will show how to make a club commercially viable.
Does this mean you will never again play for a Kolkata club like East Bengal or Mohun Bagan?
I wanted to retire in an East Bengal shirt. East Bengal will always be my club, will always remain close to my heart. I will always look out for them. Of course, I miss my fans there. But the way things are, I need to be here at United Sikkim for quite some time. This is, I guess, my toughest assignment so far.
Sanjeeb Mukherjea is the chief cricket correspondent for CNN-IBN.
Write to us at email@example.com