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Former captain Bhaichung Bhutia was in a crop of rich talent that emerged for India at the same time Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News archive

Dubai: Former India football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia has once again stressed there are no shortcuts except a full focus on grassroots development to achieve India’s footballing aspirations starting at the continental level.

Participating in Friday’s Instagram live session with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Bhutia explained in detail that only a thorough focus on the long-term goal of strong grassroots can Indian football be in a position to reap the fruit at the Asian level, followed by international stages.

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“We need to produce good quality players. That’s very important. When I say that I don’t mean we don’t have good players now. But in order to compete in Asia and at the world level we need to produce bigger better players from the grassroots,” Bhutia said.

The change in grassroots development is happening, but it will be some time before the fruits are reaped, the former Indian skipper noted.

India have been placed with South Korea, Australia and Uzbekistan in Group C at the 2020 AFC U16 Championship to be held in Bahrain from November 25 to December 12. The top four teams will qualify as Asian representatives for the 2021 Fifa U17 World Cup in Peru.

Participating at their first-ever U17 World Cup as hosts at the 2017 edition, India bowed out with three losses. But since then, India’s youngsters have shown promise heading into the 2020 AFC U16 Championship in Bahrain with dominating 5-0 wins against Turkmenistan and Bahrain and a 1-1 draw against hosts Uzbekistan to qualify as group winners.

India U16 swept Turkmenistan 5-0 in qualifying
India U16 swept Turkmenistan 5-0 in qualifying Image Credit: AIFF

Hence, Bhutia sees the junior level tournament as a good starting point for football in India. “Hosting the U17 Word Cup was no doubt a starting point for us. It is important for our age group players to participate in competitions, while at the same time they should have good training facilities and coaches,” Bhutia said.

“These are things that will help in the long run. We still need to be strong in the grassroots for the national team to make progress. We should be qualifying for the Asia Cup in U17 and U15 quite regularly.”

On May 12, 2020, Fifa re-scheduled the 2020 U17 Women’s World Cup to February 17 to March 7, 2021 in India, something that Bhutia felt can further change the grassroots landscape in India. The tournament was originally scheduled to be held between November 2-21 in five Indian cities, but had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The U17 World Cup is great step taken by government and the AIFF. For us, it’s important to host under 17s, 19s, 21s because that is where we will focus more on the grassroots,” Bhutia said.

In fact, the 43-year-old who has 41 goals in his 82 appearances for India in a career spanning 16 years, felt that the nation’s women teams have a better chance of progress as compared to the men, at least at the junior levels.

“In Asia, a lot of countries don’t have women’s teams. In the Gulf, countries don’t have girl’s under-17 teams, so the chances of Indian women qualifying for Asian championship is much better when compared to the men,” Bhutia said while maintaining that things can only get better from now on.

“The kind of support, platform competitions they are playing, the coaching staff the players are getting right now is much better than what we got. The number of matches the national team plays is three-four times more than we played in our initial stages.

“In 2008, 2009 and 2010, we played quite a few, but when I started playing in 1995, I still remember few years we had just two or three matches the entire year — just one qualifying for World Cup or pre-Olympics. We were not lucky to get good teams we got big countries and we were out of the tournament.”

Bhutia had a word of advice for young, aspiring footballers simply because the modern generation has better access to everything, starting with world-class infrastructure and vastly improved playing fields.

Bhutia was a precursor of sorts when he was among the first Indians to venture abroad while making nearly 40 appearances for English club Bury in the EFL League Two — the fourth tier of English football — earlier in his career, and followed this up with a brief stint with Malaysian football club Perak FA.

“Playing in a foreign league will give you an idea of what football is all about, what professional football is and what the business of football is. As a player, you improve a lot. It made me aware as a player on a lot of technical points,” he said.

“Not just Europe, but players can focus on other countries like Qatar, the UAE, China or Japan or a smaller league in Europe like in Belgium where you would get the opportunity to play.”