Now, they are second to none. Imports from Latin America, especially Brazil, and Africa continue to be a talked-about subject in Indian football but what’s new is the dominance of players from the North-Eastern states, especially Manipur. Over the past few seasons, it has led to a change in their fortunes and that of Indian football.
“We looked up to Kiran (Khongsai) and Gunabir (Singh) — they were the pioneers and started the migration of players from the goldmine called the North East — and thought if they can, why can’t we? Over the years, the number of such role models has increased,” says Renedy Singh, a vital cog in national coach Bob Houghton’s scheme of things and a key member at East Bengal.
On Friday, when Sporting Clube de Goa kick off their I-League campaign against promoted Vasco, they’ll have nine registered men from the North-East. Same day East Bengal will take on United Sports Club with seven listed boys from the hills.
North East talks
T Aao, India’s first Olympic captain, was from the hills but for almost 40 years from 1948, the North-East’s representation in football was marginal or insignificant. Club squads traditionally used to be packed with players from Bengal, Punjab, Kerala, Goa and maybe the odd man from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
It started changing big time post Bhaichung Bhutia and now rosters are studded with talent from Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
“People from places like Manipur are hard-working, fitter and more determined that the rest,” is how India and Churchill Brothers defender Gourmangi Singh explains the phenomenon. “Life in hills is different, it makes one physically tougher. That’s why they are doing well.”
With the numbers swelling to over 50, it should not surprise if these players rule the second I-League. That would only be a continuation of how things are at the national team. Sample this: Six Manipuris were at the forefront of India’s historic triumph at the AFC Challenge Cup recently. Even during the Nehru Cup, the hills were buzzing. The Bhaichung Bhutia-led Indian tea-m would usually turn out for a match with just one Bengali in the starting XI!
“I don’t know how much I have contributed to that but every player’s success makes a big difference. It gives people added motivation to be like him,” Bhutia says. “Also, now clubs accord trialists and players from the North East greater respect,” he says. Now they are voice that is heard. Remember the public plea of justice for weightlifter Monika Devi.
Road to better living
That North Eastern states don’t provide opportunities Tier 1 cities do is well known. For people of Manipur and Mizoram, therefore, football is often the only way to a better life. “They are not very talented but make up for it with hard work,” says Renedy.
Adds Gourmangi, “Their goal is to make it big. To be known as a good footballer.”
Apart from an innate fighting spirit that sets them apart, there is little in Manipur to produce good footballers — no infrastructure, no money, says Khongsai. Perhaps that’s why Bhutia feels that “they (Manipuris, Mizos and the Nagas), don’t mind leaving home for places where everything from the weather to the way of life is different.”
Passion and popularity
“You’ll get packed stands even if tickets are priced at Rs 200, whereas in the metros you hardly get crowds even if tickets are sold for Rs 30,” says Renedy about football’s popularity in the hills.
But perhaps because these players spend most of their time outside Manipur, they aren’t as well known at home. “I’m more popular in Kolkata,” says Surkumar. “Maybe when we have clubs from these states at national level tournaments, the scenario will change.”