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Bending it like Baichung

Baichung Bhutia is all set to lead the Indian football team against Japan today at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. He tells ANAND SANKAR that life is all about facing challenges

PHOTO: MURALI KUMAR K.

AIMING HIGHER Baichung Bhutia: `There should be a mindset to change things and we must identify the right people'

It doesn't take much effort to get an interview with the captain of the Indian football team. I just call him from the hotel lobby and a couple of minutes later we are chatting away in the corridor in front of his room. The captain is none other than Baichung Bhutia, the poster boy of the sport in our country. And the ease with which one can gain access to him probably best explains the state of Indian football.

To give him credit, Bhutia comes across as the ultimate optimist. Ask him a question and the answer will most probably begin with "Feels good!"

Born in the small town of Tinkitam nestled in southern Sikkim with the mighty Kanchenjunga for a backdrop, he has travelled a long way. Leaving school at the age of 16 he joined the giants of Indian club football, East Bengal. Then there was JCT, a stint at Bury F.C. in England, then with East Bengal's archrivals Mohun Bagan, a spell at Perak in Malaysia and now he is back again with Mohun Bagan.

Big move

Reflecting on his career, Bhutia says with his characteristic charming smile: "Life is about experiments and facing new challenges. Last year I was with East Bengal. Mohun Bagan now is a new challenge and I want to do better. It is a big move for me and the pressure is bigger. The expectations of the fans is bigger and that is a challenge I want to take."

Ever since he began playing football professionally, Bhutia has been with clubs that are in the top echelon of Indian football. But he says the clubs should aim higher. "They are doing well but the clubs don't have higher ambitions. They are satisfied with local Indian tournaments but they must look beyond them. There should be a mindset to change things and we must identify the right people to make the changes."

The high point of Bhutia's career was winning the LG Asean Cup with East Bengal in 2003. He scored in the final and thus was part of the only Indian team to ever lift the trophy. But he points to the aftermath of the victory to substantiate his earlier point about clubs not aiming high enough. "It was a great win but you have to build on it. About 17 to 20 players out of 30 left after that. You have got to keep a team together for longer."

Now 30, Bhutia at 23 was the first Indian player to feature in English football albeit in the second division. The three-year stint at Bury F.C. was a learning experience, according to him, and he is happy that Neil Warnock, the manager who took him there, is today in charge of Sheffield United, the club in England's top division.

"I have only good memories from there and a great experience. But India is honestly far, far behind. We have talent but we need other things also. We need to start from scratch to get that system. It's a process and we need the people with the right knowledge. Tactics are very important, as football is a team game. You need good coaches and there are many facets to make a complete player — psychology, fitness... "

But he does acknowledge that it was tough to survive in a foreign place, in a flat all by himself, surviving on fast food. "You do feel lonely. And the weather makes it worse. It is difficult to live there for three years but it is important to keep fighting."

In between his football, Bhutia also found time to spend time in a TV studio as a pundit during Euro 2004. And as a consequence of his huge fan following, he has Nike sponsoring him. But he laments the fact there is still no money in grassroots football and wants to do something about it. "I haven't planned anything. I probably want to work with the youth. But I definitely want to be in a position to change things."

The next assignment for the Indian team is the AFC Asian Cup qualifying match against Japan today and they have been training for it in the city.

The last time India met Japan, it was not something that made for pleasant memories. But this time, Bhutia says: "We will not make it easy for them."

Well, it feels good to hear that!

* * *

Role model

The name Baichung means "little brother" and the surname represents the Bhutia community. The Bhutias are people of Tibetan origin, who migrated to Sikkim, other parts of India and Bhutan after the 15th century. The Bhutias of Sikkim as a whole can be denoted as Denzongpa, or inhabitants of Denzong, the Tibetan name for Sikkim. Another famous personality from the tribe is Bollywood actor Danny Denzongpa. They are also well known for making absolutely yummy momos (steamed meat dumplings) and the thukpa (noodles in broth).

On being the most recognisable face of his community, Bhutia says: "It feels good and especially because Sikkim is part of the north-east. It makes people aware of the region and for the people inhabiting the region it helps them to identify themselves as a part of India."

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