In conflict-torn Manipur, two boys — a Meitei and a Kuki — scored a goal apiece to give India the victory in the South Asian Football Federation SAFF under-16 champion trophy.
Bharat Lairenjam of Nambol in Bishnupur District, scored the first goal in the 8th minute, while Levis Zangminlun of Churachandpur netted the second one in the 74th minute in the final game played between India and Bangladesh at Thimphu, Bhutan on Sunday.
Of the total 22 players of the Indian squad, 16 are from Manipur, and among them, 11 are Meities, four are Kukis, and there is also a Meitei Pangal (Meitei Muslim).
All of them are united by football, and by their desire for peace to return to Manipur.
Despite the ongoing violence that started more than 100 days ago, these young players have been playing, talking, and eating together, focusing only on winning the trophy.
'Gave Him a Tight Hug'
An elated Bharat said that he was so happy to score the goal since it was his “goal of the championship.”
"Though players belong to different communities in the team, we mingle together happily in good team spirit,” he told the Waari Singbul on Monday evening.
“My teammate, midfielder Levis told me before the match that I should score to win the match, and his (Levis) second goal was a crucial one for India to grab the championship title. I rushed towards him and gave him a tight hug to celebrate the goal,” the striker added.
Commenting on the current crisis besieging his state, Bharat said he would like to see the state returning back to normalcy like the good old days.
He dreams of playing for the country at the senior level as well by further polishing his skills.
'Football Serves as Common Passion'
Levis, his teammate, stated he was feeling extremely nervous when he stepped out on the field for the final.
“However, my confidence came to reality as I scored the second and last crucial goal,” he said. He has played for the I-League team Srinidhi Deccan FC, Hyderabad, and joined the Hyderabad Academy just last year, a decision that brought pride to him, and his hometown.
Commenting on the violence that his engulfed his state, and how his teammates belonged to different communities of the state, Levis asserted that “football served as our common passion, uniting and allowing us to set aside their differences.”
Levis’s remarkable journey and his heartfelt appeal for peace serve as a testament to the power of sports in transcending boundaries and promoting unity, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
Additionally, Abbas Shingjamayum, the Meitei Pangal player from Manipur who bagged the “Most Valuable Player” and Top Scorer (with three goals) in the championship asserted, “We didn’t talk about conflict in Manipur, and instead focused on football and team spirit.”
Lauding the glory of the Indian team, All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) General Secretary Lairikyengbam Jyotirmor Roy said that during the games, ethnicity serves as no boundary for the Indian squad of the SAFF U-16 championship.
(Borun Thokchom is an Indian filmmaker and journalist based in Imphal, Manipur.)