Gurinder Osan/Associated Press
Now as an entrepreneur, Mr. Bhutia has brought joy to his home state of Sikkim with his club United Sikkim, making it to the top tier of India’s soccer league. He also recently was appointed as the chairman of the technical committee of the All India Football Federation.
In Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, Mr. Bhutia spoke to India Ink about life since retirement and his thoughts on Indian soccer from the other side of the touchline.
Q.Tell us about your journey with United Sikkim. How did it come about?
A.I was born and brought up in Sikkim, and we have a big following for soccer here – it is the only game that’s played. Since the I-League [India's professional soccer league] started in 2007, small tournaments like the Governor’s Gold Cup here in Sikkim started dying out. So big teams and players stopped coming here, and people were deprived from watching them. The only way to bring top soccer to Sikkim was to have a club from here competing in the I-League. It was not easy to get funds for the club because we hardly have any industries or corporates based out of here. But I got some investors from Dubai to fund the club, and that is how it started.
Q.Was it difficult to convince players, both domestic and foreign, to play for your club? Are they happy being here in Sikkim?
A.When we started in second division, it was a challenge to bring good players to a small place like Sikkim. But I had played for India and knew the players, so I convinced them to sign for United Sikkim.
The foreigners are adjusting pretty well here. The biggest problem they face is that every time we go out of Sikkim, they have to wait for one hour at Rangpo [a town on the state border] for their permit to get sorted. Especially for the Nigerian players it’s been tough because the central government has put in many restrictions for them – they should make it different for tourists and sportspersons. We are trying to work with the government to find a solution. But apart from this they are very happy with Sikkim. It’s clean and green, so they enjoy it.
Q.Manipur, which is a neighboring state, has been sending quite a few players to the national team, but not Sikkim. Why is that?
A.In Manipur, both the environment and infrastructure for sport is better than Sikkim. We need more fields to play on and more age group tournaments. In the last three or four years we have got better. We now have two players playing for India. Also in Manipur, parents want their kids to be sportspersons, while in Sikkim most prefer their children to study and get government jobs. And the rest of India is far behind these northeastern states in parental support for sports. Here, 90 percent of the children come from humble backgrounds and sports is a way out for almost every kid who is playing.
Q.Indian soccer has shown no signs of improvement despite initiatives like the I-League. We are still ranked 167th in the latest FIFA rankings. What’s going wrong?
A.You have to look at what’s wrong with the structure of Indian soccer. The reason the I-League has not taken off is that the game has not spread across the country. That can only happen if more clubs like United Sikkim and Lajong FC [from Shillong] are successful. Otherwise, it will just be clubs from Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai. So the same clubs play each other in the local leagues and then the I-League. It’s not surprising that people lose interest.
Q.Since you became the first Indian to play in Europe, others have not followed in your footsteps. Why?
A.Look, everyone wants to play in Europe. But they got to have the opportunity and the confidence. Unless we do well internationally, we will not get chances, and the domestic football scene has to improve. Unless we get results, we will not get opportunities.
Q.Your most memorable performances came while playing for Kolkata rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. How do you see the state of Kolkata soccer?
A.The charm and interest has gone down as both clubs have failed to control crowd violence. If you can’t bring in good people, women and children, if you can’t give safety, good stadiums, the interest and the money will dry up.
Middle- and upper-class Kolkata don’t come to stadiums any more. For example, I can never take my wife and kid for my derby match. The clubs have not reached out to these people, to bring them back. The ones who come now are die-hard fans but also rough. Passion is there from die-hard supporters, but you can’t bring violence into the sport. This is where we can learn from England, how they have controlled hooliganism.
Q.You played for both the Kolkata rivals at different stages of your career. Any favorites?
A.I have good relations with both clubs, but I started my career in East Bengal, so they definitely have a special place in my heart.
Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is an independent journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @some_buddha.