The North East has often been something of an exotic entity even within the country of India itself. While that is definitely not something to boast about, the fact that the Seven Sisters have contributed immensely to the sporting culture of India cannot be ignored. It also remains that, often, we as Indians often fail to address their contributions. The indigenous population are treated as outsiders with increasing frequency and stories of rampant acts of racism against them are prominent. Little is known about their politics and culture until something major happens. For the rest, no one bothers to find out. It is as if the eastern wing of India is not worthy of attention.
If one looks at the history of sporting culture in the North East, the phenomenon of having the concept of competitive sport deeply ingrained within their culture stands out. As a result, the sport is not just a hobby, it is a way of life. It is that indispensable part of the routine that is so normalised, it is impossible to imagine life without it. The current FIFA U17 Squad stands as a testament to that circumstance.
It says a lot when, out of the 20-strong squad, a bulk of it comes from the hallowed grounds of football which have produced big footballing names like Baichung Bhutia, Renedy Singh, and Bidyananda Singh. 9 players out from the team come from the area Indians love to ignore. 8 of them are from Manipur while one is from Sikkim.
Nicolai Adam, the current coach of India’s team at the upcoming FIFA U17 World Cup was appointed in February 2015. He had before him the mammoth task of rebuilding and restructuring a team and bring with him some semblance of competitiveness which would allow them to stand among the best of the best of the world. At that time, then assistant coach Bitan Singh had a clear strategy in mind. His first plan of action was taking Adam to the North Eastern states to scout for suitable players.
Back then, Bitan Singh had a willful approach towards the entire task at hand. “That (the North Eastern states) is where the country’s most talented footballers are. It was natural to begin our selection process from there,” he was quoted as saying by Indian Express. It was then reported that “the country’s most talented footballers” failed to impress the German coach. But he too could not ignore Manipur for long.
After scouring all the major talent pools of India, the now former coach of the Indian U17 team was forced to concede that it was Manipur, in fact, which might just be the reservoir of the best talent- a talent which could be properly groomed in time for India’s biggest sporting event.
When one goes beyond their geographical relations, it is very easy to completely respect these players who form nearly half of India’s current squad. Almost all of them come from humble backgrounds. But instead of getting drowned by the burden of financial inefficiencies, they were resilient in the face of monetary lacks and personal tragedies. They emerged as the flag bearers of the young Indian team all set to create history in a few days.
Take the case of Midfielder Ninthoinganba Meetei. He comes from a family whose entire livelihood depends on a small dairy that they own. His father is a milkman who barely earns enough to make ends meet for a family of five. The takeaway from this situation is how young Ninthoinganba refused to give up on his dream despite being pushed into dire circumstances.
There are several other stories of the Manipur boys which are as thought-provoking as Ninthoinganba’s. There’s defender Boris Singh whose father was compelled to take up a side job just so that he could afford a pair of football boots for his immensely talented son.
And then there is a different kind of problem that Nongdamba Naorem and his family face. The young midfielder and his family live so far away from the main city of Imphal that traveling to the capital to avail corporate fundings and benefits was not an option. The state of the national highway connecting them to Imphal was also in a disarray. The family paid through its nose to ensure that football is not sacrificed as a result of a lack of funds.
Imagine the elation when this boy, this boy who has had to stand strong in the face of multiple obstacles became India’s only goalscorer in a particularly difficult pre-tournament friendly against Chile. A draw against one of the strongest youth football teams of Latin America was definitely an uplifting result. And Naorem’s goal even more so.
Manipur must surely be doing something right. According to former assistant coach Bitan Singh, this trend of Manipur dominating youth teams is present even in the AIFF accredited academy. Curiously enough, the Manipuri presence fades as you go higher in the age groups. Is it because of a lack of comprehensive structure in the state? Or the fact that the entire region ends up getting quite less exposure than expected?
We have exactly two days to go before these young boys become the subject of every major sporting headlines in the country- two days before they can put their troubles behind and just play for India in one of the biggest tournaments India has ever seen.