Not for nothing is the North East considered the cradle of Indian football. It gave independent India its first captain in Nagaland's Talimeran Ao - the only doctor to have earned that honour so far. And it has been supplying the core for the national team over the past two decades.
While they had to wait till 2009 for Shillong Lajong FC to be the first club from the North East to qualify for the I-League, the region has been on fast-forward mode since. Three more I-League clubs - United Sikkim FC, Rangdajied United and Royal Wahingdoh - have come up, followed by an Indian Super League (ISL) franchise, NorthEast United FC.
With Mizoram winning the Santosh Trophy this year and Manipur running a state league that has been praised by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), things look good in the region.
Passion for the game can reach maddening heights. Sample this: The Manipur Students Federation had successfully called a state-wide strike to protest a refereeing decision that led to Manipur's exit from the Santosh Trophy in 2005.
Watching an evening match in Guwahati or Shillong usually means people take the day off, have a sumptuous lunch at the nearest eatery and head to the stadium chewing 'tambul', a fermented version of areca nut.
"Unlike other places in India, entertainment options didn't grow as much in the North East. In metros, football needs better marketing because the discerning customer chooses to pay according to the quality of entertainment," said Anoop Abraham, a former sports management course co-ordinator at the IIM, Shillong, and the general manager of Royal Wahingdoh FC. Manipur, for instance, doesn't let Hindi films be shown.
"It's not a game-changer but what the ISL will do is grab eyeballs of the higher paying class of the North-East. Now that the purchasing power has increased, efforts are being made to ensure football stays the most popular form of entertainment," he said.
Tickets for ISL games in Guwahati have been priced from Rs 100 to Rs 1000. The stadium in Shillong is usually packed during I-League matches, making Shillong Lajong FC possibly the only I-League club to earn over a crore as gate receipts per season.
Larsing Ming, secretary of Shillong Lajong and co-owner of NorthEast United FC, agreed they are a far more assured franchise regarding guaranteed audience in seven home matches. "Our advantage is the fan following and the football structure existent within the club (all Lajong players are part of this ISL franchise). It made venturing into the ISL lot easier for us," Ming told HT from Guwahati.
Bringing former New Zealand World Cup coach Ricki Herbert is another masterstroke. Having seen football in the region from close two years back while on a tour as Wellington Phoenix coach, Herbert, according to Ming, was an instant choice. "To have 19-20 year-olds interact with stalwarts like Herbert and Spain's World Cup winner Joan Capdevila can only improve northeast football in the long run," said Ming.
With such a plan and with players from five states, football in the North East finally seems to have taken that commercial leap with the ISL. While the I-League had given them a toehold, that day might not be far when NE United actually live up to their '8 states, One United' motto.