Former Indian national football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia has enjoyed his fair share of glories with both of Kolkata’s two big clubs – East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. In the season where the two giants make their debut in the Indian Super League (ISL), Bhutia says he is excited at the prospect of watching the Kolkata derby in the new Indian top-flight. Currently at his native Tinkitam in Sikkim with his family, Bhutia speaks about the upcoming ISL season, Indian clubs playing at the Asian level and the importance of building a team for the long term.
Football restarted sport in India with the I-League Qualifiers and then the ISL starts later this week.
It’s good that it’s starting because the fans across India and the clubs need the game to start. Starting it in one venue is also a good idea right now, with the pandemic going on. I’m very excited but it’s just that the fans are not going to be there. With Mohun Bagan and East Bengal coming in to the ISL this year, it’s very exciting but you don’t get to see the two clubs playing in Kolkata. At the same time, it’s just about being patient. Next year, we will get to see these two clubs playing in Kolkata and all the other clubs coming to play against them are going to get a very difficult time from the crowd. Indian players need to experience that. They need to feel that excitement and pressure in away games; it will help them quite a lot.
This season, FC Goa will become the first Indian club to play in the AFC Champions League. Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC are also in the AFC Cup. What are your expectations from them?
It’s important that Indian clubs sign players for the long-term and build long-term teams. FC Goa were outstanding last season and they played good quality, attractive football. But once they changed the coach, quite a few players have left, including foreign players and a few important Indian players. When they play ISL this season, it will be almost a new team. If last year’s team had to play in the AFC Champions League, they could have made a big difference. I am not saying this team won’t make a difference but it’s not easy to build a team, it takes time because you need the right players in the right places to really work as a team.
I think ATKMB (Mohun Bagan) will do really well; they have retained most of the ATK players from last season. I think (Antonio Lopez) Habas is a really sharp coach. I see them doing really well. And I think Bengaluru FC also have a very good team, they have them together for a long time. I see both these teams doing well.
By the time the league takes a break in January, players and staff would have been in the bubble for over three months. How difficult would that be?
Being in the bubble will be difficult because you will get a little bored. Now that everyone’s out training, I think mentally it won’t be very difficult to cope. In this situation, I don’t see any team being favourites or see any team doing outstandingly well. Every team has got a great opportunity, including East Bengal that built the team very, very late.
As someone who has played with distinction for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, how prepared would the two teams be for this season?
ATK Mohun Bagan are much better prepared and Habas is known for not changing things too much. He has been in Indian football for a long time now, so he has a very good idea about both Indian and foreign players. I think East Bengal won’t be too far behind because Robbie Fowler has his own set of good, experienced foreign players. These players would know the demands and the systems under Fowler. It’s about the Indian players settling down well and coping with the system.
Is it advantage ATK Mohun Bagan when they play East Bengal on November 27?
I think yes, right now, on paper, they are the favourites. And it’s also happening in Goa, because when you play in Kolkata, the pressure and passion is at such a different level that there are no favourites then. But I can see East Bengal doing very well too. For them, if they can beat Mohun Bagan in their first match, it will set the season up really well.
The Indian men’s national team hasn’t played a single game in 2020 because of the pandemic. Many have pointed out that even Nepal and Bangadesh are playing. What is your view on the situation?
Ideally, they should be playing but it depends on both the AFC and the Indian government allowing them to do so. I am sure the federation would definitely want the team to play but they can’t do so without these clearances. I don’t think the federation is to be blamed. Also, we are more or less out of the World Cup qualifying, so we just need to finish the remaining quota of matches now.
Sandesh Jhingan and Jeje Lalpekhlua are returning from long-term injuries. As someone who has been in this situation in the last few years of your career, how difficult are such comebacks?
I think it’s not very difficult if your rehab and your fitness are done properly. You need to make sure that you have fully recovered from your injury. Sometimes, players like to rush without full recovery. Because of the pandemic, they have had the time to recover; it’s been a blessing in disguise for them. At the same time, they are not very old; Jeje is 29 and Sandesh is younger. I don’t see them having much of a problem.