Phurba Lachenpa’s journey: From the hills of Lachen to the heart of Mumbai City FC

By, Gangtok
Nov 02, 2022 09:58 AM IST

Phurba Lachenpa, Indian Super League club Mumbai City FC’s goalkeeper, has made the arduous journey from this picturesque village and has risen over the ranks to become a vital cog in Des Buckingham's formation.

Football is arguably one of the biggest attractions when it comes to the north-eastern part of India. The players, not just the professionals, but even school kids seem to possess a natural talent for the sport. Gangtok is one such hotbed of promising youngsters. It’s not uncommon to spot spirited kids engage in friendly exhibitions almost every evening, provided they are spared by the weather gods in the capital of Sikkim.

Mumbai City FC goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa in action(Twitter/MumbaiCityFC)
Mumbai City FC goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa in action(Twitter/MumbaiCityFC)

There is a small field right below the Sir Tashi Namgyal Senior Secondary School, where boys from the neighbourhood form huddles, and lobby the ball around ensuring it doesn't hit the ground. Others try out their luck at the unnetted goalpost and burst into Cristiano Ronaldo’s iconic ‘SIUUU’ celebration whenever they managed to beat the barehanded goalkeeper.

One can find plenty of such setups in and around Gangtok, which is also home to the mega Palzor Stadium, where the Sikkim Governor's Gold Cup is held, a tournament organised by the Sikkim Football Association (SFA).

Palzor Stadium in Gangktok, Sikkim, (Wikipedia)
Palzor Stadium in Gangktok, Sikkim, (Wikipedia)

While football remains one of the most popular sports in the state, the conditions are not friendly everywhere. Nestled over 120 kilometres away from Gangtok at an elevation of 2,750 metres, is Lachen, blessed with a breathtaking landscape and some promising football talent as well. Despite lacking any proper infrastructure, the village has given India a taste of the talent the land possesses, and it particularly comes from one house, which is situated a stone's throw away from the only monastery there.

Phurba Lachenpa, Indian Super League club Mumbai City FC’s goalkeeper, has made the arduous journey from this picturesque village and has risen over the ranks to become a vital cog in Des Buckingham's formation. "My goal is to keep a lot of clean sheets, and help the team to win lots of matches, which will put us on top of the table and fight for the (AFC) Champions League spot," the 24-year-old custodian told in an exclusive interview. Mumbai are currently third on the 11-team points table with two wins and as many draws.

While football comes naturally to Phurba, he started it by playing in a small field which would get crowded even during five-a-side contests. The conditions got better when he shifted to North Sikkim Academy, almost 68 kilometres away from Lachen. It was there that his talent got recognised. He honed his skills at the academy which saw his transformation into a thorough professional football and eventually finding a spot in the “biggest club in India”.

"I was playing in local or school tournaments in Sikkim. Then I was spotted by a person called Thupden Rapgyal, who was a representative of the Sports Authority of India, and he told me to come to the State Sports Academy, which was run by the Sikkim government. I stayed there for almost a year and then I got to play a match against Tata Football Academy. At that time the goalkeeping coach of Tata Football Academy was Gumpe Rime, right now he's the coach of Reliance Football Academy. So, he spotted me in that match, and he took me to Tata Football Academy.

"When I went to Tata Football Academy he was planning to leave and join Shillong Lajong Football Club. I was 17 years old, so he told me to come to Shillong Lajong instead of staying in Tata, and I went with him, and he gave me my first professional contract," the goalkeeper recalled.

After spending four years in Shillong Lajong, an I-League-based club, Phurba was recruited to be part of Snow Leopards, who go by the official name of Real Kashmir FC. After spending a little over a year, Phurba shifted straight from the mountains to the coast and joined The Islanders and is now their No. 1 choice between the goals.

It was here that Phurba scripted history, joining an elite group that could righteously brag about becoming the first-ever Indian club to win a match at the prestigious AFC Champions League. Adding cherry to Mumbai's historic AFC journey was a second win as they went on to finish the campaign with two wins.

"It was one of the best experiences in my life and for the team, I guess. Because we played against the best teams in Asia and the best players in Asia. It has been a great experience at a young age, I got to play in the Champions League. Because a lot don't get this opportunity to get in the Champions League and it has been a great feeling for me and for the team as well.

"Because as you know, representing India in the best league is a proud feeling for me, for my family. So, it has been a pretty good experience and a good journey so far," said Phurba.

The goalkeeper, like many others, was extremely fond of Oliver Kahn growing up, but it was his elder brother, who inspired him the most. "He has been my everything because he handles lots of my stuff and growing up because of him and my late brother I grew the fondness of playing football and cricket, and sports overall.

“So, like he used to study outside, and he used to play football and he used to represent Sikkim also. Seeing him in tournaments got me inspired to play football. When I was in school, I used to see his medals and at that time there was no telecast or TV, but I used to listen to people like how he used to play. Luckily enough I used to see his medals in our home. That inspired me to play football and bring medals, to try to win medals in my life,” said Phurba.

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The achievements of Phurba and his late brother are relished by the villagers.

“If Phurba spots anyone playing well, he gives them his gloves. He has given jerseys to a lot of kids in the village,” said Karma Norbu Lachenpa, a local guide who at times joins tourists for hikes to Lashar Valley. He adds: “Even his brother was equally talented. We have seen him play as kids.”

‘Future of Sikkim football very dark’

While Sikkim does have a pool of talent, Phurba points out the lack of programmes at the grassroots level.

"Right now, it's tough because like at the grassroots level we have fewer programs in Sikkim. We have less football in Sikkim, and because of the pandemic, the situation has gotten worse as we don't have many mini tournaments which help the kids to perform.

"So right now, I see the future of Sikkim football very dark, and the state association is also not doing much. Hopefully, in the near coming days, the state government and the state association will look into this, and we'll get to produce players like Bhaichung (Bhutia), Nirmal Chhetri, players like them," he said.

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