Former captain Bhaichung Bhutia says Indian football teams must strive to regularly qualify for the Asian Cup and FIFA youth World Cups if they are to become a force to reckon with in the continent. Bhutia stressed on the importance of continuously producing quality players for the national team by focussing on the grassroots.
"For the national team, we need to keep producing good quality players. We do have good players at the moment but if we want to compete with the best in Asia, we need to keep producing bigger and better players," Bhutia told AIFF TV. "AIFF has focused on grassroots a lot. We need to be strong at the grassroots and we are working on it. Our target for the national teams should be qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup and the FIFA youth World Cups on a regular basis."
According to him, an increase in the number of matches and exposure tours has helped the Indian football team improve its ranking in recent years. The first Indian to have played 100 international matches, Bhutia said improved infrastructure, since he hung up his boots in 2011, has also played a part in the team's steady growth. "The kind of support, the platforms, the level of competition, the players, the coaching staff -- all are much, much better than what we got previously," Bhutia said. "Now, the number of matches played by the national team is three or four times the number we played in the initial stages," he added.
Nicknamed 'Sikkimese Sniper' for his ability to score at will, Bhutia remains one of the country's finest strikers and held the record for most number of goals scored till his successor, Sunil Chhetri, surpassed it. "We had fewer games in comparison and often would get drawn against tough teams in qualification games. Players now are getting many more matches and so much exposure. It has helped them to improve and get better over time," he stated.
The 43-year-old Bhutia, who made his senior India debut in 1995, shared his views on the positive impact made by the Indian Super League, which began in 2014. "With the Hero ISL coming in, you can see that the infrastructure, training grounds, matches, coaching and quality of pitches are of much higher standards. In my time, we would have some difficult pitches to play on where the ball did not even roll. However, I have many great memories of those matches and I thoroughly enjoyed playing," he quipped.
Asked if he has any regrets on not being able to play in the ISL, Bhutia, who was bestowed with the Arjuna Award in 1998 and the Padma Shri in 2008, said he is happy with whatever he has got during an illustrious career. "I am happy with the opportunities I had in my career. I don't regret not playing in the ISL. Everyone should be happy with what you have. "I was lucky to have the I-League in our time and most of us were fortunate to play in it. Football in India is developing and the standard, infrastructure and coaching level is all improving continuously," he said.