As part of the burgeoning popularity of football in Japan in the 1980s, a number of anime on the game, usually centred around middle- or high-school football, were released throughout the decade. A decade later, the country would make it to the World Cup for the first time ever.

Captain Tsubasa and Hungry Heart are among the most well-known football anime series. Whistle! is another such series with the main protagonist Kazamatsuri Shō, who is initially seen struggling at the game due to a lack of height but is undeterred in his quest to be a good player. Rheadolf Nongneng, as I found out, is the real-life Shō.

Discrimination and struggles

As I walk up to Polo Ground No. 1, Rangajied United have just started their training as the Royal Wahingdoh youth warm down after a couple of hours of intense practice. Among them is Rheadolf, all of five feet and four inches, as some of his teammates tower above him.

As he wraps up and we head away from the ground, he tells me that he almost quit the game a couple of years ago because he was bullied both on and off the pitch because of his short and wiry frame.

“My teammates, they call me short. They say, you will never be able to play football because you are too small,” Rheadolf speaks of the time that he had just joined the Wahingdoh set-up.

Even more surprising is the fact that he was scouted and picked up only three years ago. His progress from a district-level age-group player to the Under-15 I-League’s Player of the Tournament to scoring for Wahingdoh’s senior team in the Shillong Premier League in that timeframe is remarkable.

Rheadolf's father October Jyrwa calls him a "studious" boy
Rheadolf's father October Jyrwa calls him a "studious" boy

The youngster also admitted to being physically targeted on the field, adding to his initial apprehensions about the game. “Sometimes, I have little faith in myself. I used to play my own game, but I have a lot of injuries as other players are very aggressive on the field.”

The 15-year-old admits to being a fan of France’s Mathieu Valbuena, who stands at only an inch taller than Rheadolf. His biggest challenge, he says, came in the final phase of the U-15 I-League in Margao, when he in his own words, faced off against “lots of big-big guys.”

“In the final, when we play against Minerva Punjab, I went for the captain’s handshake and it was funny, I was very short compared to the other guy,” Rheodolf jokes. The game was bittersweet for him, as he was crowned the tournament’s best player, but his team lost the final and the national crown on penalties.

He admits to having mixed feelings after the game, “I felt happy because the Minerva coach told me that he would call me over for a trial sometime, but I feel sad because we worked so hard and play harder. We had also drawn against Minerva in the group phase. Two of our penalties hit the post too. At that tournament, I never think of anything as I kept everything behind me.” Rheadolf, also a fan of Barcelona, had scored 20 goals across the regional and final phases of the tournament.

Rheadolf being awarded the Best Player of the Tournament
Rheadolf being awarded the Best Player of the Tournament

Scouted only three years ago

All this would not have been possible if Wahingdoh’s head of youth development, Bobby Nongbet, hadn’t spotted him playing at district level. Rheadolf would progress rapidly from there, being named Player of the Tournament at the Meghalaya U-14 championship, where Wahingdoh were champions, the youngster scoring 16 goals.

Nongbet says that he couldn’t believe that no club had signed up before he did. “We spotted him late. He could very easily have joined some other club”, he says, but admits that the youngster came to him asking to quit the sport at which point he told him that the game was about technique and not just about height.

For coach Bobby, his best position is a winger. “Sometimes, he plays as a striker, but he is best utilised on the wings as he has good dribbling skills and speed.” Asked why he made Rheodolf captain, Bobby says, “He is very vocal. He has excellent game thinking and motivates his teammates. Sometimes when he is out of form, I ask his mates if I should drop him, at which point they say that he may able to conjure up something special.”

Bobby Nongbet, head of the Royal Wahingdoh youth development team
Bobby Nongbet, head of the Royal Wahingdoh youth development team

After the tournament, Wahingdoh’s head coach L Darlong had included Rheadolf in his Shillong Premier League squad, the youngster given substitute appearances and also scoring in the semi-finals of the tournament.

Currently, Bobby and Rheadolf are preparing for the U-16 I-league’s final phase to be held in Mumbai starting later this month. The youngster accepts that his performances haven’t been upto scratch this season. The coach attributes some of it to “overconfidence”, but is satisfied that his charge is putting in the hard yards in training once again.

For the time being, the Wahingdoh boy isn’t just finished yet. He strives to emulate his senior Ajay Chhetri, who plays for Bengaluru FC’s U-18 squad.

He wants to test himself against the best. “There are other good clubs outside Shillong where I can receive more experience. If I don’t get a chance to play outside, how will I know how good I am?”

Goal for India is a series focusing on the beautiful game from various footballing hotbeds in the country. To read the rest of the stories in this series, click here.