In the context of football, ‘Singh a song of success’ could be Manipur’s tagline. From Gopeshwar in the 1960s to Gunabir, Khambiton and Rennedy in the 1990s to the more recent Bungo, Naoba Singh and Gourmangi, the number of Singhs who have represented India from this state is evergrowing.
In Tomba Singh and Surkumar Singh, Manipur has already produced two Indian Players of the Year. Spurred on by the Vision programme, the number can only increase. This North Eastern state is quite a factory, churning out internationals. There are four players from Manipur — Rennedy, Surkumar, Gourmangi and Bungo — in Bob Houghton’s squad now training for the ONGC Nehru Cup in New Delhi. On standby is Chandam Chitrasen, another Manipuri.
Among the best
Travel-weary from a hectic trip to India in June, Vision Asia director, Brendan Menton, brightened up when asked about Vision Manipur. Showing photographs of football in Manipur on his laptop, the former Ireland Football Association secretary said he would rate it among the best Vision Asia projects.
“It would have been in the top three, with the first two being in China but two projects in Iran too are doing very well,” he told HT at the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) office in Kuala Lumpur. The AFC is so happy with Manipur’s success that president Mohamed bin Hammam sent a special invitation to the All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) for the inauguration of the Asian Cup in Bangkok last month.
AMFA president Santosh Kumar, vice-presidents R.K.Nimai and Birendra Singh and general-secretary L.Ranjit Roy spent 40 minutes with the AFC boss and AFC sources said Manipur could receive $35,000 (approximately Rs 14 lakh) as grant for this season.
So what makes Manipur special? What makes 170 players ply their trade as footballers from their state alone elsewhere in India? What makes them have at least seven players in the national women’s squad for the past decade?
Football is life
For many it is in the genes. For others it is in the system and the obstacles that go on to make a good player. And topping it all is the passion that flows from the people in respect to the game.
In 2005, Manipur was up in arms after they lost in the semi-final of the Santosh Trophy to Goa. A refereeing blunder allowed Goa to level scores with a minute left on the clock. Goa went on to lift the trophy but Manipur came to a standstill when a bandh was called, perhaps the only time for sport. It needed the All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Priyaranjan Dasmunshi’s intervention to calm things down. This one incident encapsulates Manipur’s pride and passion for football.
In a league of its own
“It is like a tribal culture that binds us to the team, be it the state side or clubs. One can compare this to the fierce loyalty the Catalans feel towards Barcelona,” said Nimai, secretary to the Governor of Manipur and the owner of Eastern Sporting Club.
His is one of the 12 clubs that took part in the inaugural state league which kicked off on November 3 last year. As part of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Vision India, Manipur programme, this was what the doctor prescribed.
It had its share of problems but was still successful. “The league was supposed to be over by February but we could finish it only in April. This had nothing to do with our deficiencies but rather political problems. Strikes are very frequent here and can go on for days,” said Roy, secretary AMFA.
“It was supposed to be a fully professional league but clubs here have a meagre income and can’t afford to pay so much to the players. The highest-rated player here earns around Rs 50,000 a season which isn’t much compared to those playing in other states. Jobs, therefore, are necessary to supplement earnings from football,” Roy added.
Catch ’em young
But the AMFA’s real success lies in implementing the Vision programme in schools. In its inaugural year, AMFA selected four districts — Churchandpur, Bishnupur, Thoubal and Kakching — for the school project. Each district had eight schools with under-11 boys and girls being trained.
“It was difficult initially to make the schools see the point, but after they agreed, things became easy,” Roy said. Physical education teachers from these schools were given training and coaching manuals distributed.
Since the students have a busy academic session, training camps were conducted only on Saturdays for an hour. At the end of the first season, the district associations organised a school league. “This year we intend to increase the number of students to 2000 from 600,” said Roy.
These boys will get trained in schools till 13 and then be picked up by the local clubs where they would undergo further training till 18. Senior division clubs would then pick them up. “What we are trying to do under the project is help students learn the basics,” said Nimai.
AMFA also has a well-structured league. “Starting with the under-13 festival for boys and girls (from this year), we have the under-16 and under-19 leagues for boys and an under-17 tournament for girls. Besides, we also have an inter-district league for boys and girls,” said Roy.
At the top of the ladder is the state league. But money is a major problem. With no industry around, there are very few jobs and hence players are forced to migrate. “We can’t even give cash awards to the winners,” Roy said.
Clubs have a meagre budget of Rs 10-12 lakh. Fifty per cent goes into maintaining the teams and the rest is spent on infrastructure and youth development. Yet most clubs have a ground (borrowed or leased) where they have built clubhouses and dressing rooms.
In the absence of corporate sponsorships, clubs are run either by public donations or organising tambolas.
“Since the clubs are dependent on public money, we can’t sell tickets. They would feel rather annoyed having to pay again to watch matches,” Nimai added.
But with more and more clubs outside the state relying on players from Manipur, the AMFA is now looking for transfer fees from big clubs.
“If we get transfer fees, the clubs and the association would be able to function better,” said Roy, adding that the money handed over by the AIFF towards running the Vision Manipur programme of Rs 7.5 lakh a year is too little.
Follow the leader
While Vision India’s Delhi programme is stuttering, Manipur has already started planning big. “We believe that Manipur can show India how to run and play football successfully. There is no dearth of talent; what we lack are opportunities. But given the chance and money, no one will leave the state,” said Rennedy.
Battling against insurgency, drugs and AIDS, it is football that keeps the people of Manipur ticking and with the Vision programme in place, the state is waking up to a bright future.