Indian role model keen to spread the faith

Bury's striker hopes to boost football's popularity in the Asian community while on tour with his national side

Bhaichung Bhutia, his status as a national icon enshrined by a transfer from East Bengal to Gigg Lane last year, felt at home at Craven Cottage on Saturday and not only because of the renamed Bury Food and Wine shop along the Fulham Palace Road. It took India's most celebrated footballer, an occasional player with one of the Second Division's lesser lights, until almost 5.10pm to stop shaking hands and signing autographs with supporters flocking pitch-side at the Putney End.

Bhaichung Bhutia, his status as a national icon enshrined by a transfer from East Bengal to Gigg Lane last year, felt at home at Craven Cottage on Saturday and not only because of the renamed Bury Food and Wine shop along the Fulham Palace Road. It took India's most celebrated footballer, an occasional player with one of the Second Division's lesser lights, until almost 5.10pm to stop shaking hands and signing autographs with supporters flocking pitch-side at the Putney End.

"We came here because there are a lot of Asians interested in football and we want them to come into the game," said the Bury forward after the start of India's first footballing adventure in England since the 1948 Olympics ended with a highly respectable 2-0 defeat by Fulham. "So it was very important for the players to go and show our appreciation. Some of these people have come from very far, some from India, and such support is tremendous."

The gulf between Bhutia's revered role within Asian football and his standing in the English game says much about the difficulties of establishing the sport professionally in India. While at 24 he is a hero in a country whose Calcutta derbies regularly attract over 100,000 spectators but cannot find a way past the Philippines in World Cup qualifiers, he started a mere seven games for Bury, scoring twice, in his debut season as the first Asian to play in the English League.

But it is from such a modest background that India, ranked 115 in the world, are aiming to build, before Asia's first World Cup finals two years hence. Saturday's exotic affair was the first in a three-match tour of England which continues at West Bromwich on Wednesday and concludes with a likely sell-out against Bangladesh next Saturday at Leicester, city of the biggest Asian population this side of the Bosphorus.

The marketing of the tour is pretty slick. The games are being televised live back across the subcontinent, a complete tour website offering matching merchandise is up and running and the shirts, scarves and flags, invariably promoted by the ubiquitous Bhutia, were available in the Fulham club shop from Saturday morning.

The vegetable curry and spring rolls sold only modestly on a day a good deal sunnier than back in the tourists' monsoon-drenched homeland. But it was barely a balti out of the blue when Karlheinz Riedlefinally breached a 10-mandefence five minutes before half-time by steering a shot carefully home.

This was Jean Tigana's first match in charge of Fulham but, just as the Frenchman flew off before the post-match press conference, so the focus fell more on India's credentials. By nature slighter and smaller than their First Division counterparts, India's relative lack of fitness also told as Fulham played keep-ball for long periods of a feisty enough encounter.

Sure enough, Riedle scored again, walking the ball home after Virender Singh, a goalkeeper displaying theatrical agility, and Robert Fernandes, his centre-half, bumped into one another 10 minutes from time. One of the many Indian journalists asked Sukhbinder Singh, the manager, how his team could be so ill-prepared for such a historic match and show a total lack of coherence.

It seemed a remarkably harsh judgement on a team whose predecessors declined the opportunity to compete in the World Cup finals a mere half century ago when Fifa made it clear they would have to wear boots. The bare-footed Indians had only lost 2-1 to France in London two years previously after missing two penalties and as they went on to become the first Asian side to reach the last four in the Olympics, in Melbourne in 1956, the future looked bright.

But in a developing country the size of Europe, whose population recently passed the one billion mark, the costs of setting up a workable domestic game proved a barrier, especially when cricket remains a national obsession. When football's 1986 World Cup finals were televised live in India, there was a surge of interest and corporate investment gradually paved the way for the inception of a National League four years ago, sponsored last season by Coca Cola. But while the 12-team top tier thrives to an extent - 131,000 watched Bhutia score a hat-trick for East Bengal against Mohun Bagan in one Federation Cup semi-final at Calcutta's Salt Lake Stadium - the Second Division is sometimes played out in one location over a few weeks to cut down costs. And the national team went 14 months without a game until two years ago.

But the first transfer of an Indian player outside the Continent has been seized upon as a golden opportunity to spread the footballing faith, both at home and within Asian communities in England. "If we start this process, and others can follow Bhutia to come and play outside [Asia], it will be good for India," said Singh. "It will motivate others at home to attempt to emulate him."

Bhutia, immaculately turned out in collar and tie and apparently comfortable with his arduous PR role, added: "We knew we had a lack of experience going into this game but there was a positive mood in the dressing room afterwards. We gave our best, playing a European side like Fulham. We know we're on a learning curve and we can only benefit from games like this.

"The most important thing for me personally is to do well for myself, for Bury and for India. If I do that, it can provide an example for others and everyone can benefit."

Bhutia had trials for Fulham, West Brom (hence the initial contacts for his agents to help set up this tour) and Aston Villa before joining Bury. He lacked sufficient support from midfield on Saturday, as India understandably put self-preservation first, to be judged fairly but his marker Chris Coleman considered him talented enough to need some rugged attention.

"I wasn't trying to kick him, I just didn't want to have to run back too far to catch him," jested the Londoners' captain, who has just signed a new four-year contract. "He gave me one or two whacks back, so fair play to him.

"Individually, on the ball, they looked pretty skilful but they could probably do with more work on their team play. But coming from a Welshman [national team ranked 102 in the world], that's pretty rich."

India may not fancy Tigana's new training regime at Fulham - three sessions a day, starting with a 6.30am run - as they aim to regain credibility in next year's first round of World Cup qualifiers. They missed out on reaching this year's Asian Nations' Cup, finishing behind Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates. But building bridges across the continents, by trading of talent and experience, may be the first step to establishing Indian football once and for all at home and in foreign fields.

Goals: Riedle 40 (1-0); 80 (2-0).

Fulham (4-5-1): Taylor; Finnan, Melville, Coleman, Brevett (Collins, 72); Betsy (Goldbaek, 79), Davis, Collins, Clark, Boa Morte (Cornwall, 64); Riedle.

India (4-4-2): V Singh; P Singh, Ferndandes, D Singh, Gawli; Alberto (Saini, h-t), Mondal (Sangha, h-t), Ancheri (Jamil, 88), R Singh; Vijayan, Bhutia.

Referee W Jordan (Tring).

Attendance: 5,773.

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