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Bhutia’s replacements a long way from goal

To repeat a sequel-spawning piece of pop-culture wisdom,the end is only the beginning

Written by Raakesh Natraj | New Delhi |
January 9, 2012 1:31:22 am

To repeat a sequel-spawning piece of pop-culture wisdom,the end is only the beginning. For Indian football though,the search to fill the Bhaichung Bhutia-shaped hole in the side had begun even before the striker announced his retirement due to persistent injuries last year. The side has had to make do without the 35-year old for large chunks of last year,and the title-winning run at the SAFF Championships in December not withstanding,India’s frontline still looks like it is short on bite.

Fretting to keep the embers of public interest and paltry funding alive,Bhutia was a godsend when he burst onto the scene in the early-mid ‘90s. The striker may not have set off a raging blaze in the grand scheme of things,but has done more than just stir and poke. Now,it is in this capacity,that of a pin-up boy and performer,that the contenders have to captivate.

Coach Savio Medeira,who announced the 23-member squad that will take on Bayern Munich during Bhutia’s testimonial on Monday,is forthright on the question of succession. It would seem the coach would rather look back to him— a striker,who,even on a conservative estimate,must surely have been a shade off his prime at 35,than forward.

“Bhutia came to me with his (injury) situation before retirement,it would have been better if he had stayed on till the AFC Challenge,as we don’t have much quality,” said the coach at the end of a two-hour training session.

“We cannot pinpoint anybody who can take up his position; there are a lot of guys Sunil (Chhetri),JeJe (Lalpeklua),but a long way for them to go. They have to mature,learn from experience,” he said. Chhetri and Lalpeklua have been leading the side of late while waiting in the wings is an as yet untested CS Sabeeth — a clear sign of how stretched the squad is in the event of an injury or run of poor form.

Medeira points a damning finger at the club-level regulations for this paucity of options. “Which clubs do Indian strikers play for,these days? How are they going to come through? There are too many foreign players,four per team across 14 sides and the Indian strikers don’t get a chance,” he said.

The strikers,for their part,are still in awe of their senior; the idea of replacing him not even a spark in their eyes or a cue in their minds. “No,no,no comparison. He is a great striker and we are still learning from him. I would like to be as attacking as he is,” says Jeje. Sabeeth admits to a bit of nerves,for this will be the first time the youngster will share the pitch with Bhutia. “Yes,I am a little nervous as I’ve not played with him,but I will try and enjoy it,” says the striker. Just as well that nobody mentioned he would be up against Bayern Munich in two days’ time.

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