Kolkata, Jan 5 (IANS) Former India football captain Bhaichung Bhutia on Tuesday said the national team should target being among the top 10 countries in Asia, and believes improvement could only be achieved through the success of the under-15 and the under-17 teams. “Through the under-15, under-17, we are going to develop so that within the next 10 to 15 years we can be in one of the top 10 teams in Asia. Let’s not talk about the World Cup and be unrealistic,” Bhutia told reporters here at a Walk For a Cause media conference where he has been roped in as a goodwill ambassador. 

Elaborating he said: “We are now spending on the youth, at the moment we should give strong support, money to grassroots development.” The 39-year-old congratulated national team head coach Stephen Constantine on winning the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup. India beat Afghanistan to win its seventh SAFF Cup. “In the SAFF games, we have seen a lot of new players have been brought in. We have to congratulate Stephen on the success and for getting in guys like Lallianzuala (Chhangte). He was also under a lot of pressure after the World Cup qualifiers but he has now won the SAFF with so many new players, so we must give him credit,” Bhutia said. 

“It is all on the training camps. If Stephen gets time to prepare players, India will have results. Ultimately, if the national team does well, Indian football will progress. If national team does not do well, I-League, ISL — nothing will succeed.” Bhutia clarified the I-League has failed to connect with the spectators and has not been popular, but added the All India Football Federation (AIFF) should take steps to improve it. “I-League is deteriorating in terms of crowd and fan following. We should not forget I-League has produced many players. There’s no doubt that the competition and the standard of the league has increased but in terms of popularity and crowd it hasn’t happened,” he said. “For the federation, I-League is very important. Whoever wins it can play in the Asian Football Confederation Cup (AFC) and all, so it is a very important tournament. The clubs and the federation should work towards the betterment of I-League. Even though we have ISL now, the federation should support the I-League.” 

He said the Indian Super League (ISL) has been successful in popularising the game as “parents want their kids to now play football after watching the league”. “ISL is there to popularise the game. I think a part of the revenue from it is going to the federation to help the I-League clubs, so that helps,” said the AIFF advisor. “From next year we hope to have clubs from Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir,” he added about possible clubs which can be brought into the I-League. Bhutia also opined the World Cup qualifiers were difficult and the team were under prepared. 

India have lost five of the six 2018 World Cup qualifiers and have no chance of advancement. “World Cup qualifier, it is not about the recent one, previously also we have played and not done well. We did not do well when even I was in the team, we did not make it to the second round. This time, it was a difficult group that they had and they went in under prepared,” said Bhutia, scorer of 40 international goals from 104 games.

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