Considered the torchbearer of Indian football in the international arena, Bhaichung Bhutia created a huge following for himself in a country where people are majorly cricket-crazy.
Known as ‘Sikkimese Sniper’ for his goal-scoring prowess as a striker, Bhutia is also one of the few international footballers to have played more than 100 matches for his country, earning 104 caps for India and scoring 40 goals apart from captaining the side.
On the sidelines of the launch of the first-ever KFC Street Football League, the 45-year-old Bhutia spoke to IANS about the initiative, the performance of Asian teams in the ongoing FIFA World Cup, the standard of the Indian men’s football team, and other related topics. Excerpts:Q. What are your thoughts on KFC Street Football, which is being organised in association with the Indian Super League (ISL)?
A. I think it’s a wonderful initiative that KFC India has taken. It will give a lot of street footballers a platform to showcase their talent and grow. Hopefully, through this medium, a lot of kids, who love to play football, get the exposure and an opportunity to watch the ISL matches, along with showcasing their talent to a national audience. It’s the first year of this initiative, so I’m sure it’ll keep getting bigger and better with every year.Q. Can you tell us a little more about the KFC street football initiative?
A. KFC Street Football is all about promoting football and young talent and allowing budding players to perform for a national audience. The platform will be scouting for players with some cool moves and great footwork across five cities — Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Kochi. Football fans across the country will be asked to send in videos showcasing their fancy footwork and freestyle moves using the hashtag #KFCStreetFootball.
Spectators present in all matches will also have a chance to take part in on-ground challenges including The Dribble Challenge, the KFC Bucket Challenge, and the Freestyle Challenge at the KFC Selection Zone. After a round of selections by a panel of coaches and freestylers, the talented finalists will get a chance to showcase their skills to a national audience.
Q. In the ongoing FIFA World Cup, there have been lots of upsets and Asian teams have been at the forefront of it. What are your thoughts on this FIFA World Cup seeing the emergence of the Asian teams, performance-wise?
A. I am very proud of the Asian teams and their performance, especially Japan and Korea. This time because it’s held in Qatar, there is an advantage in terms of climate and environment, and therefore, Asian countries have done well. And I think it’s a boost for us as Indian footballers because we come from the same continent, and often play amongst each other.
In terms of surprise, it’s nothing new because when you play in a different continent with different climate conditions, a lot of teams struggle; like how the European teams are struggling in this World Cup. And we’ve seen some of the big names are already out like Belgium, Germany, and Spain.
Q. Do you believe that India will be qualifying for and playing the FIFA World Cup finals in the near future?
A. Of course; I believe we should never say no. I definitely think there’s a possibility that one day we will play the World Cup, and I am also eagerly waiting for that day. However, realistically, it’s also a very difficult challenge. We just get a few Asian countries to qualify for the World Cup. And these are a lot of good countries. But as I said, you should never say never, I am optimistic that one day you’ll see us qualifying and playing as well.
Q. How does one in India make football a more household game; something which is on par with Western countries?
A. I think overall the culture of sports and football is yet to fully take root in India. We, as Indians, need to be more inclined toward sports in general. We must look at sports as one of the most important factors in life — to stay healthy, and mentally and physically fit. We need to encourage kids to play sports from a young age. Encouraging the young generation to participate in sports and football, is definitely the way to make football a household game in India in the coming years.
Q. Do you feel that the standard of the Indian men’s football team is rising despite the results in their past international games though at the same time they have qualified for AFC Asian Cup 2023?
A. I definitely think the standard has improved from what it was, but there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure we’re among the top five or top ten teams in Asia. The prospect of professionally pursuing football and making a career out of it is bigger today than ever before. This is why, now, we need to think about how we can further scale it, beyond its current limitations.
Q. Sunil Chhetri has been at the forefront of the Indian football team for a long time. Who do you think are the current players in the setup who can take over from Chhetri and step into his shoes once he decides to hang his boots?
A. I think Sunil has served the country for a very long time. He has single-handedly carried Indian football to new heights. Someone needs to fill in, but as of now, we’ve not seen many outstanding players who have really done it yet. There are a few of them that have gone on to do well, but they’ve not really been consistent in terms of scoring goals. I feel this is where the players need to improve their consistency in performance.