At 37, you are still fit. How do you maintain your fitness?
I train with my club, United Sikkim, every day. I’m not as fit as I used to be but that’s because of all the travelling I have to do to fulfil my ambitions towards promoting sports in the country.
It is often said that Indians are not great in football because of diet and low nutrition. Do you agree?
No. The problem is definitely not that. This is the 21st century.
Everything can be achieved as far as dietary needs are concerned. To me, the primary area where we lack is care at the grassroot level and infrastructure.
What is the best way to stay fit?
Running is the most important thing, no matter what sport you play. Even working out at the gym can be beneficial if done moderately. Balancing your diet with workout is extremely vital.
Many kids stop playing football after passing out from school.
Isn’t something wrong somewhere?
Sixteen is usually the age when people decide if they want to pursue sports or not. Ninety per cent of them opt for academics.
And that’s probably because we don’t have a proper system that encourages sports in school in the first place. To overcome this problem, we need local clubs to focus on youth development, where youngsters can be moulded for top-flight football. I started training professionally at 16. Luckily for me, East Bengal saw my talent and accepted me.
AIFF’s youth programme has done fairly well with the U-16 boys winning the SAFF championships. What are the other improvements needed?
It’s nice to see AIFF concentrating so much on youth development. We have only six academies. I think we need thousands of such academies if we want to become a powerhouse in football.
How important is it for India to host the U-17 World Cup in 2017?
A tournament like that can change the outlook towards football in India. Most importantly, we will get good infrastructure and many academies will come up. More attention will be paid to football at the grassroot level because we too will have to put up a world-class team.
Our national team is not doing all that well. What needs to be done?
Honestly, we don’t have a great side yet. Though the players are very talented, most of them are relatively new to the Indian scene.
So, they will take time to settle. In a couple of years, I’m sure we will have an excellent side.
Recently, Pailan Arrows and Mumbai Tigers were disbanded due to financial reasons. How can these problems be solved?
I-League, though a great tournament, has failed to attract a lot of sponsors and viewership. So, it’s not working. I-League teams’ owners have to realise that. Another tournament that gets some of the top names in world football to play is bound to get tremendous viewership and thus be able to pump some money into football.
Will the IMG-R League vs I-league conflict hurt Indian football?
Frankly, I don’t know what the fuss is about. We can’t really get any worse. But yes, if the issue isn’t solved and the new proposed tournament doesn’t happen, I don’t see how football can grow in India.
Gareth Bale went for $100m. Do you think he or any player is worth that kind of money?
I’m sure even Bale must be finding it hard to believe. But he’s got nothing to do with. It’s Madrid who keeps raising the bar time and again. He would have been happy even if it were $10m.
You have been the poster boy of Indian football. Your farewell game was against Bayern Munich and you even have a stadium named after you. What more does Baichung Bhutia want?
Having dedicated myself to playing football in India, it hurts to see that we cannot qualify for a World Cup. I’m sure if we work hard, we can groom a team fit enough to compete at the international level. So, my dream is to see India participate in a World Cup.