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Northeast Today

Lush Green Ground for Football

Lush Green Ground for Football
July 11
13:02 2017

June Edition, Special Report, Dr Eunice L Chawngthu

Struggling with the complexities of conflicting identities, the north-east region of the country has earned a name for itself in the Indian sporting world- right from boxing to athletics to football. In fact, the region has been dubbed as the powerhouse of Indian football and when Mizoram’s Aizawl FC won the Hero I-League on April 30, 2017, it scripted its name in the history books. With shoestring budgets for the clubs and other sporting activities in the region, the region has come a long way, even though there are still miles to traverse. A Northeast Today report

Football and Northeast

Sport is a powerful medium that influences the quality of life and anthropologists have spoken at length as how the entire lives of some pacific island tribes revolve around wrestling. However, in a country like India where entire focus is on academics, sport being allotted with a central space is ‘unthinkable’, even though the Indian government has made half-hearted attempts to follow the exhortations of the Directive Principles of State Policy to make India a well-rounded nation. Thus, some schemes hatched at the ‘top’, inside a boardroom, without a practical understanding of the ground reality were carried out, presumably with the double entendre of weaning the Northeast youth away from ‘insurgency’. Some investments were made to inculcate ‘healthy’ hobbies and cultural activities such as guitar playing, teaching etc.

It is, however, a sheer surprise to see as how football had made its way across the Northeast and that too in the midst of all these ‘muddling’ planning, plotting, weaning away and promotion of healthy cultural activities.The question, however, is that why football? Well, no one can exactlycome up with a proper answer, but it may be perhaps due to the fact that the populace of the Northeast region has a fascination for white foreigners. After all football, until recently, was only played in European and some South American countries.

Football’s success stories of Northeast India, however, are very old. The legendary footballer and physician Dr Talimeren Ao from Nagaland was captain of India’s first national football team for the London Olympics in 1948. He also led the Indian Olympic contingent. And thus it can be said that the craze for football began since then itself.

The tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim can be credited to have produced independent India’s first ‘real’ footballing icon in Baichung Bhutiain 1993. However,it took another nine years for the Northeast to produce a second football starin Shylo Malsawmtluanga- who is popular as ‘Mama’. It was 2002, when ‘Mama’ began playing professional football for East Bengal. Then it was Jeje Lalpekhlua Fanaiin 2007- who literally appeared from nowhere! Jeje belongs to Hnahthial- a hamlet in Southern Mizoram. And in 2015, after playing some years as a professional footballer, Jeje won the FPAI (Football Players Association of India) Football Player of the Year award and was the third highest goal scorer in the Indian Super League (ISL). This perhaps changed the destiny of football not just in Mizoram, but in the entire Northeast region as well. Jeje effectively broke the glass ceiling.

Inspired highly by Shylo Malsawmtluanga, several Mizo footballers took the game like never before and played their hearts out. Today, a few years on, Mizoram produces the highest number of I-league footballers and has left its indelible print in Indian football.

Apart from star Mizoram footballers like Shylo Malsawmtluanga, Robert Lalthlamuana, Lalrindika Ralte, Lalthuammawia Ralte, Lalchhuanmawia, Malsawmzuala, Daniel Lallhimpuia, Lalhmangaihsanga Ralte, and Zohminglaina Ralte, other states from the region have also produce several star footballers. For instance Holicharan Narzary, Durga Bodo, Dhanachandra Singh, Gouramangi Singh, Khelemba Singh Meetei, Lalit- Thapa, Renedy Singh, etc. have also brought laurels to the region.

Shillong’s Eugeneson Lyngdohis known as the midfield maestro in the country. Hehas played for clubs like Bengaluru FC and Pune City FC. Manipur’s Renedy Singh, who was also the vice-captain of the Indian national team, was a vital part of the Indian team that won the Nehru Cup International Football Tournament 2007 and also the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup.

Moreover, with the emergence of Hero Indian Super League (ISL) and Northeast having its own team in Northeast United FC to cheer for, the love for the game has soared higher and got stronger and better. It is not surprising to note that players from Northeast dominate the eight (8) different franchises of the league with 34 different players from the region representing the various clubs.

Seeing the potential that NE has in the sport, NEUFC has been carrying out grassroots festival across the region- the aim of which is to find out different talented footballers and groom them for the future.

AFC story

Mizoram allocated Rs 21.56 crores of its overall budget of Rs8,803 crores from the current fiscal towards the development of sports, where in Mizoram, apart from football several other sports like basketball, boxing, and several other sports to concentrate upon, it is safe to say that a small budget has been allocated to the overall development of football in the state. Hence it is nothing short of a miracle that Mizoram has come up with something like AFC (Aizawl Football Club) with this very modest budget.

AFC, which did not even qualify to play initially at the Hero I-League championship, broke every rule in the book and then some, to make the most of the ‘wild card’ entry that was given to them by the AIFF (All India Football Federation) to snatch the tournament from un-believing established, heavyweight clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. David had effectively beaten Goliath and the sounds of the victory trumpet was heard loud and clear, across the entire football fraternity across India.And dare we say abroad as well!

Flush from the success of a first time participant winning the entire tournament, AFC was rightly hurt and then devastated when rumours of their being relegated to play second division football in India, even as they would play as champions in Asia did the rounds. This naturally made little sense to them and the overhanging sense of discrimination not un-naturally played out its card prompting AFC (Aizawl Football Club) owner, the enterprising Mr. Robert Royte to sulk that AFC (Aizawl Football Club) would fast to death if necessary.

Matters did not help when they received a rather cold hearted reply from AIFF (All India Football Federation) president Praful Patel, who said, “They (AFC) have sent some letter to me, (but) I have not yet received the letter because they won the I-League three days ago. Some threats have been issued. But let me make it clear that the AIFF (All India Football Federation) does not work or get intimidated by any threat. AIFF (All India Football Federation) works for the good of Indian football.”

In the impasse that quickly developed, Union Sports Minister Vijay Goel fortunately chipped in with a neutral statement that he would look into I-League champions Aizawl Football Club’s plea to be included in the proposed unified top-flight league.

Compounding the sense of unfairness that loomed large, was the soon to happen merger of I-League with Indian Super League (ISL) which was to be supervised by AIFF (All India Football Federation) and IMG – Reliance where a working capital of fifteen crores was deemed a basic capital investment, advertising costs not included.

This created a small sense of panic for the first time participants and first time winner AFC (Aizawl Football Club) which has since been rationalised by the simple fact of the non-merger of I-League with the ISL, which was announced by AIFF (All India Football Federation).

Sporting talent or entertainment spinner

The entire issue, which has since died down now, has opened up the proverbial Pandora’s Box of what sports in India have become all about. While many sports enthusiasts have given up on IPL (Indian Premier League) as being less to do with sport and more to do with entertainment and with reports of corruption and match fixing dogging it, the question is whether football- a relatively new sport (at least in India)- will be allowed to go the way of cricket and IPL or will some effort to stem the rot be taken up at this very initial stage before the merger. While the protests and hurt at the fear of being excluded which, if true would have been bad sportsmanship, have since died down, the very pertinent issue that it has tossed out inadvertently, needs to be addressed and now.

The other very relevant issue that needs to be examined is the neglect and lack of funds that the Northeast has been traditionally saddled with. When Mizoram, a small state with a population of just eleven lakhs, and a pathetic infrastructure can produce the highest number of professional football players in India with an almost non-existent sports infrastructure and a pathetic annual budget of 21.56 crores for the current fiscal, is it not on the part of the Central government to take up the cause of encouraging such a worthy achievement? This when even Telangana state had earmarked as much as three times that amount in their last fiscal – at 63.7 crores. And it is an admitted fact that Telangana has much better sports infrastructure than Mizoram. These glaring lapses will need to be addressed sooner, rather than later, if we as a nation want to produce world class athletes and if we indeed want to allow sport to be sport.

Government’s role

The Central government also needs to understand that ‘development’ need not be viewed from one standalone point of view and that ‘development’ of any Indian state and place can come about in more ways than one. The centre needs to assess the possibility of making sport a viable alternative for ‘development’. This can only be done by alleviating the brooding sense of discrimination that correctly persists in the Northeast, by giving adequate voice and representation to the Northeast states, by allowing the Northeast states to develop in their own time and space and by allowing the Northeaststates to participate in the decision making process. All this is, as of now missing, leading to a predictable gap and misunderstanding between the Northeast and the rest of India which is not sport and which is un-desirable and simply un-necessary.

With the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi focusing on the Northeast as a passageway to the East, with the ‘Act East Policy’ now in vogue, the time is now to correct the errors of the past and give a new hue to the approach toward the North-eastern states. A part of this can be achieved by bettering the overall infrastructure in the Northeast, by improving the sport infrastructure on a war scale and by giving a customised answer to every state keeping in mind the importance of the grassroots approach. While, this may not be easy, especially given the customary neglect that the North-eastern states have been accorded with since decades, now it is as good time for the process to begin.

Bottom-line

The central government would do well to remember that there was a time when Manipur was the only North-eastern state sending footballers to play outside the northeast. However, this has become a thing of the past and with the Indian economy looking up and sport becoming a viable and respectful profession, it is important that sufficient funds be diverted to the obviously talented sports pool that rests in the Northeast.

India has typically neglected sports and most successful Indian sportsmen have rarely depended on the state to come up in their chosen sport – all the way from Leandar Paes to Sania Mirza, Mama, Sania Nehwal and even PV Sindhu. Mizoram has shown this. Now it is upto the centre to do its job, convert the raw talent of the Northeast and make the Northeast the sports factory of India and indeed the world. And for the Northeast, this is an excellent time to dig in their heels, work hard, make a name for themselves and rise above the muck, mire and misunderstandings that surrounds us to rise to our full potential.

(The author is a dental surgeon, freelance journalist and a social activist based in Mizoram)

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