Manipur alone makes for one-third of India’s U-17 World Cup squad with one each from Sikkim and Mizoram taking the number of North East players to double digits.

Add to that, Aizawl’s I-League winning run last season, Neroca’s win in division two, representation of clubs from Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya in this edition of the tournament and one can gauge the impact of the region on Indian football.

It was therefore imperative that the state associations and private companies would look to capitalise on the talent pool and try and forge a pathway to bigger success and that has resulted in a spurt of local leagues including age-group ones across the region.

While the success local league structure of the Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya has been well documented, Arunachal Pradesh has also joined the bandwagon recently as the state aims to carve its own place in the National football structure.

At a distance of 20 kilometres from the state capital Itanagar with a population of just over 65,000, Naharlagun’s Rajiv Gandhi stadium with a capacity of not more than 4000 is providing the perfect setting for the resurgence of Arunachal football.

The first-ever Arunachal Super League is underway, with steady crowds of above 1500 pouring in to watch the matches. Even though they have 7 teams, the interest is palpable and a few teams even hope that they will make it to the I-League second division one day.

A group of spectators watches a district match in Churachandpur. (Image courtesy: Junior Zemz)

Then there is the grand plan of India’s first-ever long-term Baby Leagues Project – the Young Legends League.

Just after Aizawl completed their barnstorming I-League victory, Varun Achreja and his team 8one Foundation were involved in scouting for NorthEast United but had long before realised that although league football in the region had come a long way, youth football still needed to be structured.

What was conceptualised was the Young Legends League, which will see 594 matches played across the Under-8, U-10 and U-12 age groups. The league will take place from November to July in the Champai district of Mizoram.

Explaining his rationale in choosing the Champai district rather than Aizawl, Achreja said, “Lalthuammawia Ralte, Lalchhawnkima, Lalruatthara and Robert Lalthlamuana are all from this town. This is the third largest district in Mizoram and even though the spotlight is on Aizawl, we think this is a good, untapped catchment area where we can really make our mark.”

Richard Hood, Head of Player Development at the AIFF, suggests going even younger, “The ideal and philosophy for Champhai to now have a long-term, self-sustained and intensive youth calendar will speak for itself 6-8 years from today. Starting the Pre-league Phase at 3-6 years of age will bring through another invaluable dimension to this structure that the AIFF will aid through customised coach education initiatives.”

The Chandel Football League in full swing. (Image courtesy: Chandel Football Friends)

Many teething troubles

Having signed a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Mizoram Football Association (MFA), Achreja says that the Chhangput ground has been leased to them by the MFA but other costs, including the kits, equipment and branding of teams, 11 of them in total, are still significant.

Infact, this is a challenge faced by almost all youth leagues across the region. Junior Zemz, 24, is one of the coordinators of the Churachandpur Youth League which took place for the first time in 2017 with 44 teams and 1500 players in the Under-17 division and 35 teams and 1200 players in the Under-14 division.

Zemz explains that the cost of conducting the league is high, “It may not be a huge cost for some but 1.2 lakh is definitely a substantial amount for us. We collect a small entry fee from the teams but we don’t get good support and have to pool in money. Costs go up when it’s raining and the ground gets muddy.”

Lack of a TV coverage at these levels mean that the costs incurred have to be generated through other means. While the YLL plans to curate videos and content into a highlight reel spanning a eight episode series, others like the Arunachal League or the Churchandpur venture aren’t as lucky and will have to eventually rely on local FA or government support in the longer run.

Continuity is the real challenge

Thumli Joyshing, a 25-year old referee in the Manipur State League, has managed to run the Chandel Football League successfully for three seasons but says that recognition is slow to arrive.

Chandel, a Manipur district 40 km from the Myanmar border, saw its first league set up in 2015 and while the cost of conduct exceeded 5 lakh for the 8 teams playing each other three times in the space of two months, he says that the state FA has now pitched in for the league but insists that they don’t want viewers to pay an entry fee.

Unlike Churachandpur, games take place in three locations - Chandel, Kapaam and Liwa Serai - and that means higher maintenance costs. Fortunately, grounds are not in short supply as Gumpe Rime, goalkeeping coach at Reliance Foundation Young Champs says that Arunachal has more than five grounds which don’t have high seating capacity but can play host to local league football.

Rime, arguably Arunachal football’s most famous export and a member of their first ever Santosh Trophy team in 1993, points to three major points - continuity of the leagues, a lack of coaches and the absence of state-wide leagues.

The latest MPL table. I-League champions Aizawl are third, highlighting the competitiveness of the league. (Image courtesy: Mizoram Premier League)

Arunachal, for example, has seen two top-division leagues before but none which could sustain. Rime also points out the cases of Nagaland and Assam which held leagues in recent years but discontinued them after a year. Tripura still does not have a defined structure in place.

Kipa Ajay, general secretary of the Arunachal Pradesh Football Association, insists that they have sought funds from the government but to no avail, “The budget for this year’s league is 20 lakh. We have received 11 from our main sponsor but very little otherwise. Last year, we conducted an Arunachal women’s league and we plan to conduct it this year too besides expanding the men’s section to 12 teams by next year and start an Under-12 and an U-14 league. The Meghalaya Football Association has received grants of 56 crore for the next five years from its government but here, we can’t receive a few lakh.”

Discontinuity has its ill-effects on teams. That leaves the Santosh Trophy, Subroto Cup and other sporadic, local tournaments for players to showcase their skills and get noticed. Teams are formed just for these tournaments and disbanded after, a problem that the YLL seeks to solve.

An abrupt halt to a league also means that community units or teams are most often unable to make the transition to professional or semi-professional clubs with a defined set-up, as the absence of regular football makes it harder for footballers and coaches to consider this a full-time career.

Capital Complex FC play out a goal less draw with Bamang Taji FC in the Arunachal Super League. (Image courtesy: Arunachal Super League)

Most of the prominent leagues in the North-East are also limited to clubs from the capital region. The Mizo Premier League, arguably the most famous of the North-Eastern leagues, sees participating teams mostly come from the capital, Aizawl.

Ajay admits that all 7 Super League teams this year are from in and around Itanagar. Meghalaya’s flagship tournament is called the Shillong Premier League and all 72 teams from four divisions are either based in the city or must travel to Shillong to play.

Bah Bor Diengdoh, secretary of the Meghalaya FA explains that since the terrain is rough, the state is split into 21 different leagues, out of which 10-12 operate on a regular basis but cost of lodging, food and transportation expenses makes it impossible to have a state-wide league.

As a result, far-flung regions like the Jaintia or the Garo hills, which might take upto a day’s travel from Shillong, miss out on facing the state’s more-fancied teams and causing an upset or two, which might bring in recognition, even if temporary and hyper-local in nature.

Training for the Young Legends League at the Chhangput Stadium is on. (Image courtesy: 8One Solutions)

The lack of coaches in proportion to the number of young footballers coming up is also an area of concern. While the likes of Rime, Shillong Lajong’s Bobby Nongbet and Neroca’s Gift Raikhan are AFC A license holders, only two from the entire region - Lajong’s former head coach and Kerala Blasters’ head of youth development, Thangboi Singto, and former I-League coach and now head coach of SPL side Lansning FC, Herring Shampliang,have an AFC Pro license.

The challenge with fielding new teams in new leagues is that state FA’s have to set minimum criteria for each outfit, which includes having a licensed coach and that remains a challenge as more established ones are unwilling to travel to these regions, with the exception of a few.

For Ajay, this problem was anticipated and he says that he and his team worked hard to set up Arunachal’s first-ever AIFF D-license course, after which 11 coaches had obtained new licenses.

As teams go higher up the rung, these challenges will only amplify unless the teams manage to grow in stature but for now, the first signs of professionalism and modernisation creeping in to age-old systems is evident.

Rime has the last word though, “We cannot keep harping on the past, be stuck in it. Our achievements, our accomplishments have to be forgotten and we have to start afresh and keep at it. It is the only way.”