Manipur’s love for a game of football was on show during two exhibition matches played yesterday at the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium. The exhibition matches organized by the Manipur Development Society and Youth Affairs and Sports Department along with a few private sponsors saw a packed house at the stadium where people trooped in to be met by police personnel who had no clue where to direct vehicles according to the entrance numbers and a few, who were selling tickets on a road stretch leading to the stadium. Everyone overlooked the electronic scoreboard and time clock that had long past given up and gave in to the love of the game that was evident in the contagious ‘Mexican wave’ that kept spectators on their feet. People with tickets stood in patient lines and waited to be let in through the limited gallery entrances that were open. The first of the exhibition match was a baptism of sorts for the young team that had earlier undergone a tow month residential football training camp with foreign coaches. That they were defeated by the more experienced All Manipur Football Association (AMFA XI) that had taken the Champion’s trophy earlier of the Dr T. Ao Memorial NE football is just the result of the match but essentially, it would be these young boys who will be taking on the mantle of the game in the state, region and for the country. Not to forget of course, that many of them will eventually land up playing for professional teams across the country. Which is why, more attention needs to be given in the detailing of nurturing talent and in organizing viewer friendly tournaments. That the state has been a fertile breeding ground for a lot of sporting talent cannot be denied but to live content with only the description would be contributing towards our own downfall. If it is football today where locals of the state are shining on various levels of competition, the same was true for hockey at one time. Unfortunately, hockey is no longer being mentioned or encouraged while even with football, the women’s team at the national level has not seen any local names in quite a while.
Then again, compare and contrast the football situation in the state with that of neighbouring Meghalaya and Mizoram where private agencies as sponsors have stepped in to establish private professional clubs in a bid to replicate the European football club level championships and what is happening in the cricket scene in terms of the premier league (IPL). Yes, Manipur does have clubs but that is more on the lines of Leikai level interest and apart from the Government organized championships, there is no Championships being held where sponsors step in with huge investment stakes. Which is why, there should no complaints really when football talents from the state venture out and play for other clubs spread across the country. In Meghalaya and Mizoram which has been a late entrant on the football scene, the strides that are being taken to nurture and encourage their players is huge with state Premier leagues being organized, with contracts being signed and insurance given for treatment of injuries etc. In Manipur, even the entry of ambulances on the field is relatively new. This, when teams are bringing in the expertise of sports physiotherapists and sports counsellors. Over and above the lack of support systems to build up football talent in the state, there is also the habit of decay and irresponsibility to existing systems. The Khuman Lampak stadium which was once the pride of the state now lies a sorry figure with many seats in the supposedly VIP gallery in conditions not fit for seating people while the lack of waste disposal measures inside the stadium leads to littering, a sight that is not too pleasant. There is no reason why the state cannot be a destination for the game of football. But this can only be done if steps are taken to address the existing condition where the state is a starting point for football. For this to happen, the Government and its various agencies have to step in to take care of players and to ensure a good audience set up by brining in quality services. In terms of sponsorships, cricket will always be the main priority till the time the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI) is reined in but right after cricket and tennis, it is football that is still drawing in some sponsorship interest. But though the turn around is indeed possible for the talent as the spirit of the game is very much evident in the state, the other fear is that the lack of a strategic approach can sound the death knell, much like it happened for hockey and women’s football.