Football in Shillong meant a leisurely Sunday afternoon kickabout at the Polo ground until Lajong FC became the first team from the Northeast to play in the I-League. Largely untouched by cricket and with limited employment opportunities, boys in this part of India are beginning to consider football as career option.
There has been nearly a four-fold jump in trialists for Lajong FC’s junior team. “Earlier, we would get around 150 boys every season. Last time, it was 500,” said Bobby Nongbet, coach of Lajong’s young ones, here for the junior I League qualifiers.
Meghalaya though has a lot of catching up to do. Anoop Abraham, co-ordinator of sports management at the IIM, Shillong, said football as a profession is still a new idea here.
But what works for Lajong FC is the security it provides. “Eight out of 10 boys here would not want to move out of the Northeast if they are given a choice because most of them can’t adjust to the culture and diverse conditions in football academies. Lajong FC has given them that choice,” said Abraham.
Vindicating Abraham’s point is Pynshongdor Shadap, an 18-year old talented central defender, who said he left the Tata Football Academy (TFA) because he felt homesick.
Corporate support is available as well. Not only is Lajong FC sponsored by a number of international brands like Nokia and Adidas, even local first division clubs have corporate backing, indicating the popularity of the game in a state.
Also doing its part is the Meghalaya Football Players Association (MFPA), an autonomous body consisting of ex-Santosh Trophy players. It has been arranging youth festivals in various age-groups. Some players from those festivals made to the India U-14 squad. But, Abraham said, the enthusiasm could seriously wane if Lajong FC fail to beat the drop. “It maybe sometime before any other club takes up Lajong’s place.”
He also said the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could do more. “The AIFF could have televised the I- League final between Dempo and Lajong FC ,” said Abraham.