The former India skipper spoke on an array of issues related to the domestic game.

Fans play an integral part in football, as they act as the 12th man and their impact on the game is often understated. However, in recent times, their presence or lack thereof has been felt in the games played behind closed doors, which has been necessitated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While reminiscing about his incredible hat-trick for East Bengal against Mohun Bagan in front of a boisterous Kolkata crowd in the Federation Cup semi-final in 1997, Bhaichung Bhutia revealed that the atmosphere created by the fans that day led to the event being extra special and will forever be etched in his memory.

In strange times like these, where players are likely to play sans fans, the former Indian striker admits that he could never imagine scoring that hat-trick in an empty stadium, but believes that players will have to acclimatise to their new surroundings.  

“Never imagined something like that. The thing about that hat-trick was the presence of people. That made it memorable, made the biggest moment of my entire football career,” he said to Hindustan Times.

He went on to add, “But, given the situation we are in, I would have accepted an empty stadium for that match. The show must go on; even if it means players don’t get that extra 15, 20% energy from a full house. I have played to empty stands too. As a player you learn to adjust.”

Currently, Bhutia is residing alone in his flat in Siliguri since he couldn’t return to Kolkata before the country went into lockdown. He believes that before the lockdown was imposed nationwide, the people should have been provided some time to get back to their respective abodes.

“The plan was to go to Gangtok for a couple of days and return to Kolkata. But, first West Bengal shut down (March 23) and then the country. We should have given people 3-4 days to go home. Now, we need to learn to live with COVID-19.”

Incredibly, Sikkim has only recorded one case of COVID-19 until May 28. The 43-year-old tried to provide a few explanations for the same. He reasoned, “They are possibly testing less, but call it an advantage or disadvantage, Sikkim is isolated. The airport’s shut most of the year (due to adverse weather), there are no trains and if you close two roads, you isolate the state.”

The Premier League confirmed it’s restart date yesterday while the Bundesliga resumed action a couple of weeks ago. In resuming, it became the first of the top-five leagues to return after the two-month break due to the pandemic. The German league also provided a model for the resumption and acted as an example for the leagues of the other countries to follow.

Talking about the potential resumption of sporting activities in India, Bhaichung Bhutia remarked, “That will depend on rules governments frame, but if the testing protocols of Bundesliga and K-League are to be followed, maybe only cricket can restart given the cost involved.”

Recently, two legends of Indian football in IM Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri took part in an interesting conversation on Instagram. Bhutia has been one of the fortunate few to have seen both these maestros weave their magic from close quarters and he shared his views on the duo.

“I know them well, on and off the pitch. I would any time buy a ticket and see Vijayan, but if I had to sign a player, it would always be Sunil. The fan in me would always have fun watching Vijayan. But, if I was a coach who wanted a player who would deliver consistently, it would be Sunil. He (Sunil) has successfully adapted to different situations,” Bhutia said.

Bhutia spent a copious amount of time wearing the East Bengal shirt in his career and will always be a special part of their history. However, the news that the club’s investors will not pay the salaries for this month hasn’t impressed their former superstar. “Why would anyone want to exit on a sour note? It is not a massive amount,” Bhaichung Bhutia said about the investors who will be leaving this month.

For some time now, there have been regular discussions on reducing the number of foreigners in the ISL as well as the I-League, to allow the Indian players more playing time. Indian national team head-coach Igor Stimac has been a huge advocate of the rule change and has urged the authorities to make the necessary changes for the betterment of Indian football. Meanwhile, Bhutia feels that treating both the leagues as independent entities would be the right call to maintain the standard of football, whilst simultaneously offering young players a chance to develop.

He opined, “Now that we have accepted the ISL as the No. 1 league, let it continue like it is because it is important to have good quality. On the other hand, reducing imports in the I-League will give Indians a chance.” Moreover, he suggested that Indian players could be loaned to the I-League to get them regular minutes in a defined position suited to their abilities.

Alike Stimac, the Indian legend also suggested increasing the length of the season and introducing cup competitions that could provide players with valuable opportunities as well as necessary exposure against top-quality oppositions. He said, “The way to do it is to have more teams. Our season should begin in early September and end in late April. We also need a cup competition where a second division team can play an ISL team. The AIFF needs to push for this,” concluded Bhaichung Bhutia.

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