Gangtok: Bhaichung Bhutia has been at the helm of Indian football for well over three decades and in his illustrious career as a footballer, he was one of the few that made the cut to play for a European Club. On September 30, 1999 he travelled to Greater Manchester in England to be a part of Bury Football Club (FC), becoming only the second Indian footballer to play professionally in Europe after Mohammed Salim.
Fast forward to August 27, 2019. In the fourth tier of the English football league system, Bury FC were expelled from the league due to unpaid debts and poor ownership.
EastMojo caught up with the former Indian football captain who shared his experience with the club. Terming his three-year stint with the club as a good experience, Bhutia said: “Even while I was playing there, the club was going through some financial constraints. Not just Bury FC, there were other clubs facing similar issues largely due to recession that was going across the world. It is very unfortunate, Bury is a good club but surrounded by many big clubs, Old Trafford could be just 10 minutes away, Manchester City is another seven minute drive, Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool which could be just an hour drive from Bury.”
Asserting that a lot of small clubs in the United Kingdom are struggling, he claimed that such clubs have now been limited to be the breeding ground for raw talent before players are snuck away by the bigger clubs.
“When I was out there, we had two-three good players who were sold from the club, that was how the club was surviving. When you don’t have investors coming in and are unable to produce players from the grass roots, it becomes very challenging for any club to sustain. I had been following on Bury’s status over the last month and since they finished the last season, they were struggling to find investors,” he said.
Bhaichung shared his concern with the fans and players who had been supporting the club since its establishment in 1885.
Bhaichung had been on trial for other clubs in the English league such as Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa. “Neil Warnock was the manager at the club during those days and the coaches also clicked with me at Bury FC, so they signed me. After my signing, he left for Sheffield United and eventually he was Queens Park Rangers recently. We did have a decent, good manager and after he left it was different. We had a player cum manager after that, but despite that the club was still stable and there weren’t many issues. They were having good players but in one year’s time they did sell. It was not as bad as how it has been now,” he added.
Citing how every player from around the world wants to play in the European clubs, “It’s a big market and every footballer wants to play there. It is not just confined to entertainment, it’s a very serious business and the market across Europe is huge. We have players going for $3 million with buying and selling, so it’s a huge market and it looked as a very serious business. In India, anywhere we play, it’s for fun. If it’s an inter-school tournament, it’s for fun in India, but in Europe it’s serious and spotting the right talent and making a good revenue for the club and the players. Anywhere you play, the kids around there are looked [at] as raw talent”.
He also highlighted how players like David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were picked up at a very young age. Asserting that clubs devote themselves in nurturing the players, he also claimed the same to be lacking in India.
“That culture of playing sports and staying fit, we need cultivate more among our youths. India still has not been able to do that, Northeast India could be the only exception to that but we need to mix all the right elements across the country. In Sikkim, we have this culture of Independence Day football tournament but after the event, there is no follow through. We see a lot of kids playing around the villages but then they get lost. If we can create that culture for 365 days, that is how we can create great players who can make it to European clubs,” he added.
Every once in a while, we hear of a youth from India making it to the trainings of bigger clubs in Europe. To this, Bhaichung commented, “Those cannot be considered as trials, they go for training and a lot of these clubs they tend to market as now it has become a very tough competition with all the countries marketing their clubs. India is a big market, so we get a lot of U-13 or U-14 players going to big clubs for training for a few days. We also send players from Bhaichung Bhutia Football schools, we sent around 50-100 kids but they are all paid training. It is nothing serious, but to get them the exposure and also marketing gimmick for a lot of European clubs.”
On sports minister Kiren Rijiju, Bhaichung termed him as passionate and supportive towards sports. Sikkim chief minister Prem Singh Golay has met the sports minister to discuss on sports in Sikkim. “For us now it is to get good projects, which helps people of Sikkim. Through the government if we approach him, he is definitely going to support us. We need to make projects, we as individuals, we cannot go. But the government has process to reach them better,” Bhaichung added.