Mumbai: When Baichung Bhutia is on song, even the grass on the football turf is pleased to be trampled by his boots. The 38-year-old Sikkimese Sniper’s gun may be rusty today but his teeny eyes still emanate passion for the beautiful game. So what if Baichung isn’t dribbling for the well-liked Indian Super League (ISL), he is thoroughly supporting the new signings and is completely against the idea of merging it with I-League.
“I don’t see a merger happening and I feel there should not be one. ISL alone is doing a lot of good to Indian football with good coverage, foreign players and sponsorships. I-League doesn’t have the same amount of audience. The players are getting a chance to be trained under legends like Zico (former Brazil footballer, coach of FC Goa) for two months. One can learn a lot by spending time with the foreign footballers too. They can imbibe the professionalism by observing how they recover from injuries, what they eat etc.
“I don’t think it is the right time to merge both the leagues. When I-League comes up, one can think about it. But now, when ISL is there, don’t bring it down to the level of I-League,” said Baichung, who has been a consultant with Atletico De Kolkata – the franchise co-owned by former India cricketer Sourav Ganguly - at an event here on Tuesday.
Baichung – who played I-League and also owns a team (United Sikkim FC) – reiterated how managing a club is a challenge financially.
“One can’t blame the federation. I-League doesn’t get healthy sponsors. Most of them are corporate clubs and very few connect to corporate teams, like Dempo, Salgaocar. One needs to make sure the team is based out of a particular area and you work with the people there. There should be footballers picked from all states other than signing expensive players every season,” he said, adding: “On top of that, I-League has not been spread well across India, it is only limited to Kolkata and Goa. Stadiums are empty during matches.”
When Baichung made his senior international debut (Nehru Cup, 1995) at the age of 19, he scored in the tournament to become India’s youngest goal scorer. The Blues, riding on his young spirit, also won the SAFF Championship in 1997. They beat Maldives 5-1. But in 2015, a sequel to the glorious past looks bleak. Recently, India lost three consecutive matches in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers – against Oman, Guam and Iran. What went wrong?
“Our coach Stephen Constantine needs time with the boys. The football calendar should be worked upon so that the players spend enough time with him. It is important for the national team to play all the friendly matches. On top of that, we do not have quality players like Iran and hence, to teach them the tactics, positioning and formations, overall the system – give Stephen time,” said Baichung, who is also a Padma Shri recipient.
Going back to the ISL, Baichung lauded the franchises for wisely selecting the players for the second season.
“I think we have taken a step forward this year because there was no draft system for foreign players. The clubs did good research and signed good quality foreigners apart from the marquee players.
ISL is such a tournament that each team has an equal chance to win. Every year, there is a almost a new team. One can’t rate a favourite,” asserted Baichung who has 40 international goals under his belt.
Baichung, who fought tooth and nail for East Bengal FC during most of his career, also praised Do Dong-Hyun – who turned superstar for the Red and Gold brigade with 12 goals in the Calcutta Football League.
Very few are aware that Dong-Hyun donned NorthEast United FC colours (the franchise owned by John Abraham) in the inaugural edition of ISL.
“I think it is great the way he performed so far, it is sad that we didn’t get to see much of him in the ISL last year when he played for NorthEast. I wanted East Bengal to win the I-League this year. The kind of performances they are coming up with now, they will do good in the long run,” he said.
However, Baichung refused to predict India’s rankings in the coming years.
“It is not easy to say that unless the grassroots scouting is done properly. The state associations need to play a major role as well. One good thing is the U-17 FIFA World Cup which will be held in India. The tournament will develop the infrastructure and we can spot the talent, from the U-17 and younger teams, for the future,” added Baichung....