When Amarjit Singh Kiyam led out his India side for the first time in the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup in New Delhi, reminiscences of a day 69 summers ago in eastern London were brought out to the Indian footballing fraternity when the nation made its first ever foray into any global football tournament.
It was Dr. Talimeran Ao, captaining the national team in the 1948 Olympics and from that point on, his home state of Nagaland and the rest of the seven sisters in the north-east, have been a cradle for footballers, representing the Indian tri-colour.
Geographically, the territory which lays east of the West Bengal ‘chicken neck corridor’, the gateway of which is Assam is demarcated to be the northeastern region of India. Surrounding Assam, which is the most developed state in the region are Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura; the original ‘seven sisters’.
At a time when Bengal was the dominant supplier of players for the sport, a handful of them could only migrate in quest of being spotted and such was the story of Talimeran Ao, India’s first football captain who was completing his medical degree in Kolkata when he was spotted by Mohun Bagan and the road to the national team followed soon after. Many had not been lucky as him during India’s so-called ‘golden period’ in football during the 50’s and 60’s. No player from the region made it into the squads which won the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962.
During the last decade of the century, players from Manipur slowly started to encroach the national scene courtesy showings in the Subroto Cup, an annual inter-school tournament in the national capital. The Tata Football Academy (TFA), set up in 1987 sent coaches to spot talents and hosts of them from the state were invited for trials in Jamshedpur, soon churning out players ready to don the blue. Names like Somatai Shaiza, Kiran Khongsai and Gunabir Singh were the first to emerge from the erstwhile Princely state of Manipur. Bimal Ghosh, who coached Air India wasted no time and made a trip to the hills and brought back with him Bungo and Tomba Singh to the big league in Bombay.
“I was told from a very young age that the only way to make it big in football was to earn a successful trial at TFA and my uncle guided me through it when I turned 14,” says current India national team winger Udanta Singh who emerged through the very same route and whose uncle Samson Singh played top-division football for a decade at Air India under Bimal Ghosh.
At the turn of the millennium, key positions in the Indian senior side had Manipuri players in it. Fullback Surkumar Singh and midfielder Renedy Singh, who came to be known as the dead-ball specialist were regulars. Defenders Gouramangi Singh and Govin Singh emerged later.
South of Manipur, Mizoram were still searching for an inspiration to thrust their footballing hopes when Shylo Malsawmtluanga dared to travel to Kolkata and helped himself to a contract with East Bengal in 2002 – the first ‘Mizo’ to do so, ever. That kick-started the revolution of migrants from the state of players, of whom the likes of Jerry Zirsanga, Robert Lalthlamuana to current India forward Jeje Lalpekhlua were born.
At a time where Assam was being commercialized and the cricket-fever latched on to the valley, football became a secondary option with the age-old tournament Bordoloi Trophy reduced to being watched by only a few hundreds. The story of the hills was a bit different where the 90 minute game was still numero uno. Only Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura had no history of the game while football in Nagaland fell into abyss. Economically backward in lieu of its topographical challenges, no structure of a footballing league emerged and all players had to ply their trade elsewhere in the country – Manipur and Mizoram had almost become manufacturing units where the product was shipped out to the retailers far away from the plant.
It all changed when Shillong Lajong became the first club of the region to turn professional in 2009 and Meghalaya joined the bandwagon by producing players for the national teams across all age-groups alongside Manipur and Mizoram. A robust academy ensured a footballer could complete his total metamorphosis from an Under-12s player to a first-team player in the national league by remaining at one club and that too at home.
In India’s recent 4-1 win over Macau in Bengaluru, four of the starting eleven were from the seven-sisters. Meghalaya’s Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Manipur’s Jackichand Singh, Assam’s Halicharan Narzary and Mizoram’s Jeje Lalpekhlua completed the spectrum and signified why the region was vital for the national team, which sealed its qualification to the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 for the first time since 1984 through merit.
The domestic club league called the I-League most recently was won by Aizawl FC, whose triumph is a product of the commercialization of the sport in the state ever since the Mizoram Premier League kicked off in 2012. Interestingly, players from the title winning team included three from the western shores of India and the coach Khalid Jamil was formerly of Mumbai FC – quite the reverse to the normal trend.
When India’s first ever squad for its first ever participation in a FIFA tournament finals for the ongoing U17 World Cup was announced, there were nine from the region out of the chosen 21. A solitary representation from Mizoram and eight hailed from the ‘Mecca of northeast football’, Manipur including the captain Amarjit.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) Academy’s efforts were glaring for everyone to see, for it is their scouting network which embellishes talents one after another each year. Till the right track and investment is maintained by the national body, serving as a pioneer for local clubs to follow suit, more of these hidden gems from the hills will emerge and go on to become blue tigers.
(Swapnaneel Parasar is a correspondent with Goal.com)