Not easy to focus but Manipur players have been wonderful: Stimac

By, Kolkata
Jun 09, 2023 08:10 PM IST

Udanta, Mahesh, Chhangte and Jeakson ready for India duty in the four-team Intercontinental Cup that begins on Friday.

As Manipur swayed from turbulence to uneasy calm, these footballers sweated and suffered for three weeks in Bhubaneswar. Chinglensana Singh couldn’t make it because his house was torched in the ethnic violence that has ripped through the state, Mohammad Yasir and Suresh Wangjam pulled up injured and then there were four — Udanta Singh, Noarem Mahesh Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Jeakson Singh. On Friday evening, they will trot out for India at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium.

India men's football team coach Igor Stimac. (Reuters)
India men's football team coach Igor Stimac. (Reuters)

When they reported for the training camp, India head coach Igor Stimac said he had a quick word to find out if their families were safe. “To my relief, they were all right,” Stimac said from Bhubaneswar before the opening game against Mongolia, a first-ever for India, in the four-team Intercontinental Cup.

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Stimac then tried to gauge whether the players from Manipur including Wangjam, who had joined the camp that began on May 15, would be able to go through the grind that involved gym, training and tactical sessions in three-day cycles followed by a rest day. “It is not easy to focus on football when you keep reading or hearing of disturbing news about where you and your loved ones live. But these players have been wonderful,” he said.

For over one month, football has been stalled in Manipur where at least 98 people were killed and over 36,000 displaced since clashes broke out on May 3, the trigger being a proposal to give Meiteis Scheduled Tribe status which angered other tribes including Kukis. The last match of a league for developing players scheduled on May 6 was called off in Imphal as was the state’s biggest competition, the CC Meet.

“It is a sad situation that you have to say no to the national team because you don’t have a house and the pitch you built was burnt,” said Manolo Marquez, the new FC Goa coach who has moved after three seasons at Hyderabad FC. He was speaking about Chinglensana Singh, his player at Hyderabad FC for three terms.

Speaking on Kicks For Free, Hindustan Times’ football podcast, Marquez said he was with Yasir and Sana (Chinglensana’s nickname) after the season as they couldn’t go home. Marquez had visited Chinglensana’s house in Churachandpur during the 2022-23 Durand Cup. “I know his family… there are some things more important than football,” he said, speaking from Barcelona.

Living with war

After training on Thursday, the squad celebrated Chhangte’s birthday. Sometimes, football can also be a welcome distraction, said Stimac. He would know having lived through a bloody civil war that led to the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. “Games would be stopped because of bombing,” said Stimac. He was playing for Hadjuk Split and their training pitch was near a military base in Lora, a harbour in the north-western part of Split in Croatia. There would be trigger-happy snipers on top of the buildings near our training area, he said. “It was f***ing strange.”

“For the first week or two after the war began, you were stunned and concerned about whether your family and friends were safe. And then, you started living with it. Which is possibly worse, but life has to go on.” Things like going to funerals every other day become normal, he said. No one in Stimac’s family died in the war, he said.

Stimac was part of the under-20 World Cup-winning Yugoslavia team in 1987 and had, because of compulsory conscription, served in the Yugoslav People’s Army for one year. “You had to join after finishing secondary school but since I was playing, I was allowed to join when I was 21,” he said.

When the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95) began, football was far from his mind. “I wanted to join the military and serve my country,” said Stimac. “But soon, it was clear that our leaders wanted sportspersons to be ambassadors. Defending the flag in sporting arenas, we were told.”

A defender, Stimac played 53 times for his country including in the 1998 World Cup where Croatia finished third. “In a peculiar way, the war also made us more mature as a team,” he said.

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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