Over a cup of tea by the shack on the road leading to the Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex and before moving inside for more tea, channa and slices of white bread, Larsing Ming Saywan mentioned how big a deal it is for Lajong FC to have, among others, brands like Nokia, Adidas, Kingfisher and McDowell as sponsors.
The shack’s where Lajong FC players and staff breakfast after morning training sessions. Given that hotels is one of the lines of business Saywan, the club’s general-secretary, runs this arrangement seems curious but he said it is deliberate.
“We've been doing this for 10 years and if we leave just because we've qualified for the I-League, it could send wrong signals to the players. Change is necessary but it has to be gradual. Hopefully, in 10 years we will not be eating here,” he told HT on Wednesday, ahead of the fifth round I-League game against Mohun Bagan here.
Where Meghalaya and the Northeast’s only team in the League will be a decade from now is conjectural but the start's been positive. Lajong FC is a community on Facebook with Churchill Brothers and India defender Gourmangi Singh among the 1200 supporters. And the team trains at a village called Mawkasiang, a 20-minute drive from here, "because they donated the ground to us."
Though the contribution of big brands to the nearly Rs 2.5 crore annual budget is "negligible", Saywan said the association's an important starting point. On Wednesday, Lajong FC shirts made by Adidas went on sale here.
Plugs on the radio and activity at Nokia stores here have added to the buzz that has assured a full house.
Tickets priced at Rs 50 and Rs 100 were sold out on Monday for the approximately 25,000-seater stadium. Till late Wednesday afternoon, touts were selling Rs 50 tickets for Rs 500. Non-drinkers thronged pubs in Police Bazaar offering free tickets, ready to exchange the price of a peg for a ringside view. And wine shops offering a quarter of rum with a Rs 50 ticket were doing brisk business.
Soon, it won't just be seven Northeast states rooting for Lajong FC, Saywan said, "because we are signing a striker from Nepal."
For now, the roster has players from Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with imports from Africa. “We decided to give ourselves three years to build this team (everyone including two of three foreigners have a three-year contract). If we survive, next season most of our players will be between 21-24 and with I-League experience.”
Like any promoted team, Lajong FC's priority is to avoid relegation. Saywan has taken a break from his business to focus on that. If they succeed, it would be the best advertisement for a competition whose efforts at marketing have been so inadequate that it wasn't till Mohun Bagan played Mahindra United in New Delhi this year that Saywan watched his first I-League game.