It takes a village... A look at how Manipur is getting it so right with sports
How does a tiny state generate 18 Arjuna awardees and batches of star boxers, footballers, weightlifters, archers and even judo and wushu players? The answer lies partly in a tradition of community volunteering that dates back to its days as a monarchy
It was another busy day in Ima Kheitel, the market run by women in Imphal.
Shawls, saris and phaneks (the traditional wraparound skirt) were being haggled over and sold. But in between, there was urgent, passionate analysis of something else. At first it sounded like a discussion of children’s report cards.
“The boys got too much TV.” “They have plenty of time to improve now.” “Jackson should not have missed that one.”
The previous night, the Indian U17 team had lost 4-0 to Ghana and had to bow out of the World Cup. “We followed the matches keenly. The boys have our blessings; they will all be good footballers,” says Gurumayum Chhaya Devi, 52, who sells shawls and blankets here.
They don’t just follow football. Boxing, hockey, weightlifting... name a sport and they will name their local star.
As intrinsic as music and dance are to many cultures, sports is to Manipur’s, says Naoba Thangjam, CEO of the North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association (NEROCA) football club.
That only partly explains how a state of under 28 lakh people has produced 18 Arjuna awardees and makes up 38% to 50% of the country’s national Under-17 and senior women’s football teams.
Eight players from the state are on the U17 team. And while the current men’s team has three players from Manipur, there have been as many as seven playing for India at a time.
This despite the fact that Manipur is one of the most militarised zones in the country — as a result of a separatist movement that has raged since the 1960s — and faces frequent shutdowns and blockades, including one this year that stretched over more than five months.
“I have travelled across the country and have not seen any community support local clubs as we do here,” says Thangjam.
There are over 1,000 small sports clubs across Manipur, most run by volunteers. “This spirit of volunteering for a cause can be traced to the pre-colonial Manipuri tradition of lallup,” says RK Nimai Singh, an IAS officer who retired as Manipur’s commissioner of sports and youth affairs, in 2014.
Lallup, he explains, is a tradition that existed when Manipur was a monarchy, where every male between 17 and 60 was encouraged to place his services at the disposal of the state, voluntarily, for a certain number of days a year.
This used to mean that the men would work on public projects such as roads and monuments.
“The practice died out during British rule. But the spirit of lallup seems to have become an integral part of how sports is organised and promoted at the local level,” Nimai Singh says.
Local clubs are started, run and funded by local communities; volunteers provide their services — from former sportsmen and sportswomen training youngsters, to donors offering equipment, subsidising or paying for meals for trainees, even maintaining the physical structures of the clubs and helping send players to tournaments outside the state.
These clubs form the backbone of the strong sports culture in the state — supporting a range of disciplines from boxing and football to hockey, judo and archery.
“Most players who emerge from Manipur start out with a community club,” Nimai Singh says. “This is largely unique to Manipur. Except for certain sports in a few states like Goa and West Bengal, clubs in India are not a deep-rooted part of society.”
The Social Reformers Club in Imphal, for instance, is 45 years old and runs on funds collected door-to-door, voluntary donations and an annual Holi raffle.
The club has a small room and a community ground used for football, hockey, shooting and archery.
“Two years ago, a taekwondo player from the locality got a chance to play in a national- level meet in Mumbai but could not afford to go. We had a meeting to figure out who in the community could help him, someone volunteered to fund his trip and he won bronze,” says Chinglemba Ran Lairenlakpam, 29, a core member.
The system creates a virtuous cycle. “A footballer from our club, Dharmachandra, now plays for Mumbai FC. Whenever he is in Imphal, he spends some time helping our boys and girls train,” Chinglemba says.
SUPPLIER OF TALENT
In the 1960s, as insurgency peaked and Manipur became part of the Golden Triangle used by drug traffickers, “sports became a way to divert the energy of the youth,” says Nimai Singh, who served in various capacities in the state’s sports department for three decades.
Then, in 1976, the state broke away from Assam’s sports bodies and formed its own associations for various disciplines.
Sponsorships and incentives are still a struggle, says L Ibomcha Singh, who has trained Olympians Mary Kom, L Sarita Devi, L Devendro and Dingko Singh.
“I have been training boxers in Manipur for over two decades and despite producing champions we still don’t have the incentives to keep young talent at home — and that’s mainly because local businesses are small or nonexistent, visibility for our players is so low, and therefore sponsorships can become a problem,” Ibomcha says.
Players often have to leave the state, join a professional league or institutions like the Army, police force or railways, which can ensure a livelihood and a career in their chosen sport.
“Since most Manipuri athletes have to move out of the state looking for jobs, we often don’t even realise how many players there are from Manipur on national teams,” says Oinam Bembem Devi, former India women’s team captain and an Arjuna awardee. “In fact, even the current Indian women’s team has 13 players from this state.”
NEROCA is trying to keep more stars at home. It too was a local club supported by the people of Imphal East. But in 2014, Thangjam led its conversion into a private limited club to compete in the second division of the national football meet, I-League.
This year, they won the tournament and will be playing at the top level of the national league in the coming season to become the first club from the state to do so.
“When we took the leap in 2014, it was a leap of faith. But we were confident, simply because of the immense pool of talent we had. Every year, Manipur produces players who are playing for teams across the country, so why not tap their potential here, we thought,” Thangjam says.
One of NEROCA’s success stories is national-level footballer Gouramangi Singh, 30, who left Imphal to be trained at the Tata Football Academy in Jharkhand at 13, played for Churchill Brothers and FC Pune for years, and was signed by NEROCA FC this year. “All these years, I never got a chance to play at home. It is always special to come back to your state and city and play,” he says.
Though the club has been riding high on its victories, it faces significant challenges.
This year’s blockade by the United Naga Council stopped supply trucks into the state and left players struggling to find enough eggs for their dietary requirements, Thangjam says.
Foreign players are also hard to get. “They initially agree but then they Google Imphal and read old news of insurgency and are too scared to come,” he says.
Match attendance numbers tend to be particularly high in the state — particularly for football. In a friendly match between NEROCA and Northeast United on October 22, there were over 20,000 at the Khuman Lampak stadium in Imphal — a city of just over 10 times that many.
Part of the reason also, Gouramangi points out, is that these games are often the most exciting event on the social / entertainment calendar.
“We do not have most of the entertainment options of the world outside. There are no malls or multiplexes, so sports still remains the primary source of entertainment,” he says. “We have immersed ourselves in it, partly to forget what we don’t have.”
Mumbai-based football coach and former Indian footballer Godfrey Pereira puts it all down to passion.
“I have played with many boys from Manipur and as a coach for Air India I got a chance to work with sportsmen from there. It would not be an exaggeration to say that football particularly is in their blood,” he says. “Sports is no less than a religion, even to the children in this state.”
Even the insurgents won’t interfere with a player or a game.
“Throughout the history of insurgency in Manipur, the insurgents have never messed with sports or sportspersons,” says Nimai Singh. “In an insurgency, places with great sporting traditions like Punjab in India and Yugoslavia as a whole saw their sports culture hurt. In Manipur that has never been the case. Never has a prominent player been forced to join the militants or threatened for playing on the national team. They know — no one who attacks sport can have any support in Manipur.”