How the Northeast Has Become a Dominant Force in Indian Football

As India plays the FIFA U-17 World Cup, it’s high time the contribution of the Northeastern states is addressed.

4 min read
Indian skipper Amarjit Singh and teammates at a practise session before the Under-17 World Cup. 

Football is growing in India and there is no denying that. The advent of ISL and the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in India have aided the cause.

But before football was popular in India as it is today, there was one Indian footballer whose individual brilliance helped create the spark that has now turned into fire. We are talking about Bhaichung Bhutia, the first Indian to play a competitive game for an overseas club.

Bhutia was born in Sikkim and he played a huge role in putting the Northeastern states on par with the likes of West Bengal, Kerala and Goa when it comes to football.

In recent years, the recognition and growth of football in Northeastern states have been massive. In May 2014, a Bundesliga club, Hoffenheim, visited India and played a friendly against Mizoram, and in April this year, Aizawl won the I-League against all odds.

As India gears up for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, it is high time the contribution of the Northeastern states is addressed.

Numbers Speak For Themselves

When India announced its squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, there were just three players from West Bengal, one from Kerala, and none from Goa! The contribution of these states to Indian football in the past was huge; however, a glance at the current squad tells you that there is a new dominant force of talented young footballers in India.

Ten out of India’s 21 men squad for the tournament hail from Northeastern states of the country – Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Boris Singh Thangjam, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Kumanthem Nonthoinganba Meetei, Amarjit Singh Kiyam Jeakson Singh Thaunaojam, Mohammad Shahjahan and Nongdamba Naorem from Manipur; Komal Thatal from Sikkim, and Lalengmawia from Mizoram.

The team captain, Amarjit Singh, and star player Komal Thatal are the two most capped players in the squad with 30 caps each to their name. The latter is also the player with the most number of goals for the team with eight to his name, and this includes a memorable goal against Brazil U-17 during the Brics Cup last year.

Thatal is considered the brightest prospect in the side and it is rumoured that scouts of European football giants, Manchester United, will be scouting the teenager during the tournament in India.

What Has Helped Northeast Produce Quality Talent?

Outside football, there is often a lot of debate about how the Northeastern states of India are often neglected, but football could end that debate once and for all.

One major factor behind the growing success of football in the Northeast is the lack of cricket fanaticism. Assam and Tripura are the only two states from the Northeast that participate in the Ranji Trophy because football has always been the heart and soul of these states.

The All-India Football Federation (AIFF) has been criticised for several decisions but they deserve a lot of credit for finding talented players from the state.

Seven of the 10 players from the Northeast are from AIFF Elite Academy, while the other three are from Minerva Punjab. AIFF realised the potential of players from the Northeast and did well to focus their scouting in the Northeastern states.

They have also increased the number of coaches while making sure that these coaches are highly qualified. Their grassroots programme involves proper and systematic training.

There are several factors that have helped the growth of football in these states.

The respective state football associations have done well to create youth setups and grassroots programmes to train players from a young age. In addition, there has been vast improvement in infrastructure. For example, Manipur underwent a stadium renovation while Mizoram set up artificial turfs to provide regular training.

In Mizoram, the football association secretary, Lalnghinglova ‘Tetea’ Hmar, pushed for a football revolution. He pushed for the introduction of artificial turf pitches and conceptualised the Mizoram Premier League in 2012.

The Mizoram Premier League was well organised and it was televised locally thanks to Zonet. The matches were also played in the evening and this helped take football to the masses. It is not a common sight to see a local league televised.

The effort of the state associations would have been futile if they were not backed up properly. There is more corporate backing and there is also more involvement from the community at every stage.

However, the noteworthy factor has been the support of the state governments particularly in Manipur and Mizoram.

The Manipur Chief Minister, N Biren Singh, is a former footballer and journalist. Before he was the CM of the state, he held the role of Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports. His love for the game has helped the state.

Similarly, in Mizoram, Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla is actively involved in sports and is the founder-president of the Mizoram Football Association.

Last but not least, the involvement of players from the northeast in the Indian football team has helped grow the interest in the game and also take up football as a career. The fact that football is considered a viable career option in these states is a game changer and the significance of that cannot be downplayed.

Today, without a hint of doubt, the Northeast is Indian football’s talent factory and the key to making India a big name in football.

(Naveen Joseph is a passionate, avid and cognisant sports fan who believes that sports make the world a better place. Although content writing is his forte, he has significant experience in video production and copywriting. All of this after graduating from IIT Kharagpur. In the long run, he hopes to infect the rest of the world with his love for sports)

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