WHILE grappling with the complexities of competing identities, India’s north-eastern region has acquired an all-embracing identity as the powerhouse of Indian football. When Aizawl FC from Mizoram scripted history on April 30 by becoming the first football club from the region to lift the country’s top-flight football league title, the Hero I-League championship, it also shared a larger success story with football lovers across the country. The story of how the passion and love the people in the north-eastern States have for football shaped this overarching identity for the region and helped clubs with shoestring budgets scale heights. It is the story of a region where football is, as the Aizawl FC owner Robert Romawia Royte said, “a way of life”.
Aizawl FC was crowned with the I-League title after it held Shillong Lajong FC of Meghalaya to a 1-1 draw in the last league match held in Shillong. Shillong Lajong FC is the first football club from the region to quality for the I-League. This north-east derby shattered the dream of Mohun Bagan, a giant in Indian football and a former champion of the I-league, of clinching the title this season. Aizawl FC was only a draw away from the league title when it beat Mohun Bagan 1-0 in the previous match.Success stories
This is not the first football story the region has in its bag of success stories. The legendary footballer and physician Dr Talimeren Ao (1918-1998) from Nagaland was captain of India’s first national football team for the London Olympics in 1948. He also led the Indian Olympic contingent. The iconic footballer Baichung Bhutia from Sikkim led the Indian football team in seven international titles and is credited with being the country’s longest-serving football captain. He is also the first Indian player to play professional football in England. Another iconic and charismatic footballer from the region, Oinam Bembem Devi from Manipur, led the Indian women’s team to victory as captain in five international football tournaments. During her two-decade-long, illustrious career, the 37-year-old legend also became the first Indian woman footballer to play professionally abroad.
Sports clubs in Guwahati—such as Maharana Club, Gauhati Town Club and Sporting Union—and Manipur played a key role in spotting football talent in the region in yesteryear and helping them nourish their talents, the veteran sports journalist Premadhar Sarma said. “The clubs in Guwahati would send its members to different educational institutions to find out if any young footballer from other parts of Assam or the region had enrolled for any course. Whenever such a footballer was spotted, the club members would do their best to convince them to play for their clubs,” he added.
“The veteran footballer Animesh Ganguli of Maharana Club approached the football legend T. Ao when club members came to know that Ao had enrolled in the science stream in Cotton College [Guwahati]. Later, when he went to Kolkata to do a medical course, Sarat Das, a veteran footballer from Assam, then playing for Mohun Bagan, took him to the club, and Ao was inducted by Mohun Bagan to play as a defender. In 1948, he was made the captain of Mohun Bagan, and in the same year he was made the captain of the Indian team for the London Olympics. The Indian team under T. Ao’s captaincy stunned football lovers across the globe by playing barefoot in London Olympics,” Sarma said, recalling his acquaintance with the football legend.
The likes of Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC have produced hundreds of footballers with a professional edge who have been playing in various clubs in India. Twenty to 30 per cent of the players in the Indian football team come from this part of the country. The eight football teams that participated in the third edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), which was held last year, had 30 players from the north-eastern region.
Girls and women from this region, too, not just boys and men, have been dominating Indian football. Ten of the 20 members of the Indian women’s football team that played in the qualifying competition for the Under-16 Women’s Championship, a biennial women’s football tournament that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) organises, were from the region. The team was selected from 30 players who underwent one month’s training in Patiala, Punjab. The Indian team won two of its four matches in the Group B pool, where it was clubbed alongside South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines and Northern Marina Island, but it did not make it to the finals of the qualifying competition held in China last year. Two of the three goalkeepers in the Indian squad were from the region: Monika Devi from Manipur and Laxmita Reang from Tripura. Manipur has won 18 of the 20 Senior Women’s National Football Championships held.
In sharp contrast to state-of-the-art football arenas that are available in the rest of the country, for footballers in the region virtually every patch of flat open space, even courtyards and empty streets in the hills, are practice grounds. Residents of hill towns and villages gather at these football venues in the midst of nature to cheer footballers. A ball may get lost in a deep gorge at the edge of the venue if someone kicks it too long.
“Football has been a popular game in Mizoram. It is a way of life in the entire north-east. Passion, love and craziness of the people for the game have helped Aizawl FC scale heights. Twenty per cent of the Indian football team is from Mizoram. Despite the absence of corporate funding, there is an abundance of players in Mizoram. This game is the best preventive against drug addiction. Parents want their wards to be with us so that the children do not fall prey to social evils like drug addiction or indulge in smoking or chewing of tobacco,” Royte said. Aizawl FC is a professional club that runs on a shoestring budget compared with big-ticket clubs, but it has initiated several projects to groom young talent in Mizoram as professional footballers, with the motto “Catch Them Young”.
The senior journalist David Laitphlang, who is also the vice president of the over 100-year-old Laban Sports Club in Shillong, said that the popularity of the game in Meghalaya had gone beyond the traditional love and passion for it. “Football has always been a favourite game for the people of Meghalaya. However, people from all walks of life have now started taking the game more seriously and exploring it as a preferred career option. Over a thousand kids turning up at the screening camp organised by Lajong Football Club Academy, which can accommodate 100 aspirants, is a pointer in that direction,” he said.
Last year, Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma announced his government’s plan to launch “Mission Football” with the aims of honing the skills of young talent and creating infrastructure to attract investment in football.
Notwithstanding the rising popularity of the game and the splendid performance of players from the region, some recent developments in Indian football have cast a gloom of uncertainty over the game in the north-east. A merger of the Hero I-League and the franchisee-based ISL has been proposed in order to create a unified top-flight league with 11 teams: eight ISL teams and three big-ticket clubs from the I-League, that is, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC. The news doing the rounds was that one of the criteria the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) and IMG-Reliance had set for the proposed league was that a club would have to pay a franchisee fee of Rs.15 crore to be part of the new league, the additional cost being on account of team building and expenses to run the club. The merger, had it happened, would have relegated Aizawl FC, the country’s champion, to the second division.
Aizawl FC submitted a formal claim to the AIFF to continue in the top league even after such a merger. In case the club did not get a positive response from the AIFF, it planned to make representations to the Prime Minister, the Union Sports Minister and to the president of the AFC. If these also failed to yield a positive result, the club said it would hold worldwide protests, including hunger strikes and demonstrations near AFC/FIFA offices and picketing of FIFA offices. After Aizawl FC submitted its claim, both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal submitted representations to the AIFF expressing their doubts about the merger. The AIFF has put the proposal on hold for at least the next two or three years. Football lovers in the region are looking for reassurances that corporates and celebrities of the Indian film industry will not make a push for the merger as it will distort the identity of the region and adversely impact its football clubs. If that happens, the popularity of the game in the region may erode and the resultant distorted identity of the region will only revive the mainland-versus-the periphery debate, which the game of football has overshadowed for now.