Former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia on Tuesday backed the much-debated IPL-style football tournament of IMG-Reliance, scheduled to start in January 2014, and is confident that it would help revive the sport in the country.
"I think, the new tournament is great for Indian football. Being the president of the players' association, I have spoken to the players and they are looking forward to it. I think it will benefit players a lot. More than that, I think it is going to benefit Indian football," Bhutia told reporters here at the Cooperage ground.
The 36-year old said the I-League has not been able to create the necessary impact but expected the new format to attract spectators and also prop up the existing domestic league.
"If you look at last 5-10 years, the way I-League has gone and the way Indian football has, it has not been able to make a big impact. So I think it is important that we have new investors and new teams, new people investing in the game.
"Good, big footballers across the world coming and playing in the two-and-a-half month long tournament, like in IPL. I think that is going to bring a lot of people to the ground, which I-League is struggling at the moment," said the retired striker known as the "Sikkimese Sniper".
"I think it is important that this tournament would bring in people, investors, sponsors and also generate lot of interest and hype for a lot of youngsters who would like to make football their career. Then they can see that they can make a career out of it.
"I own one of the I-league clubs and as an owner I can say it is good for Indian football and will benefit I-League as well, at some time or later. We need to be positive and everybody has to come together so that the tournament goes off well," he said.
Most I-League clubs have opposed the tournament and refused to loan players to the new league or take players contracted to it. Bhutia said the I-League has failed to spread the game across the length and breadth of the country.
"I think it (I-League) has failed out to reach to different parts of the country. It is just stuck between Bengal's five clubs and Goa's five. The Federation (AIFF) did not have new ideas to spread the game across. I think a lot of the state associations, apart from Goa and Bengal, did not do much to bring in professional club and support it and bring in new teams.
"I started United Sikkim and struggled so much in Sikkim itself. It is a nightmare to have a new club playing in I-league. I am not saying that I-league should shut down or I-league has no hope. There is definitely hope but something new and exciting has to come in to revive the game, I feel," he stated.
He wanted I-League and the new one to co-exist and also hoped that after few years, both formats get merged.
"I-League should continue. Definitely with new people coming into the game, investors coming in, hype coming in, I-League can survive and do well. If you look at last five years, Mahindra United, the two time champions, JCT, the first I-League champion team, they are all shut down. It is sad.
"We don't want clubs to shut down and today a club like United Sikkim, which is just two years old, is struggling to survive because we don't have sponsors. I go and meet all the corporates but when it comes to I-League, I am struggling with sponsors as well.
"With the new tournament coming in, I hope there would be some people who would be interested to invest in I-League as well. Maybe three-four years down the line, the new tournament can be clubbed with I-League and made into one tournament," he said.
Bhutia further said that the new tournament would help the Indian footballers as they would get an opportunity to play with top quality international players.
"We are trying to bring in some new players from world football. A few players like Michael Owen can come in and play with the Indian players. Right now a lot of the Indian players are trying to go abroad and play in European clubs because they want to play with good quality players, big players and want to go in the big clubs," he said.
Bhutia said the present impasse between I-League club owners and the AIFF should end for the sake of Indian football.
"The clubs and the new tournament organisers have to come together so that players get to play in both tournaments. We need a tournament that can bring in crowds to the stadium and motivate young generation to play the game. The big clubs will have the money and still go on and play the I-League. Lots of clubs who do not have that kind of money would suffer.
"Prayag United are struggling and not formed a team this season. They are in I-League, but don't have the players to sign and they don't have the sponsors. There are lot of other clubs like Churchill Brothers, winners of I-League for the last two-three years, who don't have title sponsors," he said.
He also said that the 38 people contracted by IMG-R have the potential to make it to the national squad.
"If you look at the players here today and if you make a team out of these 38 players, it is as good as the national team. Ninety per cent of them can easily walk into the national team. We wanted a lot of players from I-League coming in and playing this tournament and we also wanted a lot of these players to play in I-League," he said.
Bhutia claimed that most I-League clubs are in favour of the IMG-R tournament.
"I don't think everybody is against it. There are one or two I-League clubs that call the shot. I think it is very unfair. When the I-League club association meets, we don't have the real owners coming and sitting in the meeting. It is represented by few people who have very limited knowledge."
Bhutia said if players are not able to play in both the tournaments, it was a loss to both I-League and IMG-R.
"It is a big setback for players who don't get to play for a longer time. Sitting (out) six seven months is a very bad thing. It is going to be a big loss for the I-League and also the Reliance tournament because you want all the best I-League players coming and playing in Reliance and you want players from the new tournament coming and playing in the I-League," he said.
Bhutia emphasised that Indian football has not gone forward over the last decade and remained largely stagnant.
"It is very important to look at the larger picture, the last 10 years, see where have we gone. We have not made even the top 20 in Asia. In the last 16 years of my international career, the biggest achievement I can boast of is (India) qualifying for the Asia Cup and that has happened once. Now the next Asia Cup is in Australia, and we have not even qualified," he said.
"We need to look at the national side of it, so that players get exposure. They get confidence (playing against) good quality players. (See that) the confidence and the quality improves in the players.
"Once the players' quality improves, the club and the national team also gets into it. We need to look at the national (picture) and not just the I-League," he said.
The former skipper said that all the players that IMG-R had spoken to are keen to play in the new tournament.
"I can assure you that all the players we have spoken to are very keen to play this. They are bound by the contracts with their clubs, but given a chance, if clubs ask them if they want to play (the new tournament), we will have 100 per cent of the players saying we want to play the new tournament," he remarked.