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The show must go on: Bhutia vouches for football behind closed doors

Dhiman Sarkar | HT
Kolkata
“Never imagined something like that,” says Bhaichung Bhutia.
‘That’ referred to whether he ever thought about how it would feel scoring a Kolkata derby hattrick in an empty Salt Lake stadium instead of one heaving with a record 1.31 lakh people like on July 13, 1997.
“The thing about that hattrick was the presence of people. That made it memorable, made the biggest moment of my entire football career,” says Bhutia referring to the Federation Cup semi-final when East Bengal stunned a free-scoring Mohun Bagan 4-1.
“But given the situation we are in, I would have accepted an empty stadium for that match,” says Bhutia, 43. “The show must go on; even if it means players don’t get that extra 15, 20% ‘josh’ from a full house. I have played to empty stands too. As a player you learn to adjust.”
Nine years since iconic forward retired, he is learning to adjust again – unmoored from his home in Gangtok and family in Kolkata, Bhutia has been living alone in his flat in Siliguri for over two months. “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,” he says, over phone.
Lockdown necessary but…
For Bhutia, who twice contested elections for Trinamool Congress before floating the Hamro Sikkim Party in 2018, confining India was important. “But we should have given people three-four days to go home,” says the former India captain and Padma Shri who stayed away from a Beijing Olympic Games torch run because he didn’t support China on Tibet. “Now, we need to learn to live with Covid-19.”
His way of coping is eating healthy, drinking lots of ginger and lemon tea, and working out. A short exercise video Bhutia posted on Twitter in March ended —predictably —with him executing a bicycle kick and landing on his back on his living room sofa.
Sikkim has recorded a single Covid-19 case till May 28. “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,” he says.
With the country gradually opening, does he see competitive sport resuming? “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 re-start given the cost involved,” says Bhutia.
Bundesliga is committed to paying for around 25,000 tests on players and staff. South Korea’s K-League paid for testing players and staff and teams will have to monitor squads for the rest of the competition.
As India stayed indoors, IM Vijayan told Sunil Chhetri on Instagram that it would have been super had they played with Bhutia for India. “We would have raised a storm,” Vijayan said. Bhutia and Vijayan’s international careers overlapped by nine years and they were at JCT for two seasons. Bhutia and Chhetri played six years for India and a season at Mohun Bagan in 2002. Between them, the trio has 128 international goals in 263 games.
“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,” Bhutia says.
“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.”
Also in the time of no sport, East Bengal’s football investors, who are leaving this month, announced players won’t be paid salaries for May. “Why would anyone want to exit on a sour note? It is not a massive amount,” says Bhutia who played nine seasons in a red-and-gold shirt and was the founding president of the Football Players’ Association of India. Including support staff, East Bengal’s first team’s monthly salary bill is around ~ 1.3 crore.

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