In the town of Moirang, the INA Museum is the largest attraction, one which was graced by the likes of President Ramnath Kovind recently, as part of the North East Development Summit, held in Imphal.

Close to bigger and busier cousin Imphal but relatively smaller in area and population, the town has recently been filled with posters of eight boys, seven of them in blue and the biggest of them in green, standing in the centre.

Next to those pictures are equally-large boards featuring a man belonging to the town, clad in all blue. In Moirang, Kumam Udanta Singh in his Bengaluru FC kit, is everywhere. There is little doubt as to why; Udanta is the hottest prospect in Manipuri football, currently.

That is not to say that the fame of Dheeraj Singh and the other seven teenagers who have played in the Under-17 World Cup is any less though. Every shop owner and cabbie knows Dheeraj.

Haan, usne accha khela (Yes, he played well),” say passers-by pointing to the figure in green. Meanwhile, the man who preceded Dheeraj and Udanta as the apple of every Manipuri eye is scheduled to speak at the summit.

Dheeraj and Udanta have a huge fan following in Moirang.

‘What have the AMFA done?’

Back in Imphal, business is halted for a day as a strike is called in protest of Kovind’s visit. It is peaceful, unlike the protests and economic blockade which rocked the state’s capital last year, resulting in strife and violence.

It is not too tough to see why Manipur produces so many sportspersons. The government awards jobs encouraging those who take it up, the populace and the media are gaga over sport and in particular, football. The bilingual Sangai Express and the English daily, Imphal Free Press, dedicate 25 percent of their column space for sports.

The next day, former India international Renedy Singh addresses the summit. The Sangai festival, the state’s biggest celebration is also underway and the city is a bustling place, on account of the festival and summit.

An international at 19 and now an A-license coach besides being the President of the Football Players Association of India (FPAI), Renedy has inspired many a footballer from these parts, including Gauramangi Singh who has represented India 69 times.

As he finishes his engagements at the summit, looking dapper in a suit and tie, we hit a joint in Imphal East, one that he seems to relish eating at. As we consume a delicious Manipuri lunch, the 38-year-old seems tired, “I have been shouting off the top of my voice for the introduction of a Baby Leagues. We need to start one very quickly.”

To the casual observer, Manipuri football seems to be in rude health, due to the presence of 8 in the World Cup contingent and newly-promoted Neroca FC. The truth for those closer to the system and experienced in Manipuri football affairs is something else; the All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) simply haven’t done enough in the last two decades.

Another ex-footballer gets angry at the fact that AMFA has taken credit for the eight teenagers. “What have they (AMFA) done? It was the AIFF who took these teenagers in, before that it was individuals. What are they taking credit for?”

Another calls the AMFA a “bunch of old men” and terms the Manipur Super League “a joke”.

The renovated Khuman Lampak Stadium (Image courtesy: Manipur Football Players FB page)

Neroca FC almost moves to Guwahati

Back at the Classic Grande in the Chinmeirong area of the capital, Noaba Thangjam oversees the packing of Neroca’s kits as his team gear up to face Minerva Punjab for what will be their first-ever I-League encounter.

Noaba, the owner of the Classic chain of hotels, is later seated in the lobby as he recalls the time that he bought the club. The son of a table tennis player and a sports enthusiast, the Thangjams have always supported Neroca, which was a community club specific to the Chinmeirong area. The younger Thangjam, Darjeeling educated, had returned home to handle the family business in 2009 and bought Neroca in 2015, a plan which he had initially thought of in 2012.

“Neroca is the state’s first professional set-up. Prior to that, our boys had to go to Shillong and other places to play as they had no avenue to play top-division football in the state,” says Thangjam. Manipur’s football-crazy populace were almost deprived of the opportunity to watch the I-League at home.

When his team had won the second division back in May, Thangjam realised that the existing facilities at the Khuman Lampak Stadium simply wouldn’t do. He had communicated the same to the AMFA, who hadn’t renovated the stadium in years.

AIFF’s first inspection committee were not pleased with the state of the stadium and had asked Neroca to shift their games elsewhere. After the second inspection also produced similar results, massive protests were held at the stadium as AMFA had still not been stirred into action.

Biren Singh, the state’s Chief Minister and a former footballer himself, had to intervene to quell the protests and AMFA were finally directed to carry out renovations to the tune of almost 2.5 crores.

Manipur boasts many a field but most of them have fallen into a state of disrepair and lack a quality turf. The 12 teams competing in the MSL have raised this point time and again but to no avail.

A pick-up game in Manipur. (image courtesy: Renedy Singh)

Trouble for the MSL

The MSL has 12 teams, with the last two teams getting relegated. Each district has its own league, from which winning teams compete against each other to get a spot in the MSL. However, post a match on the 12th of October this year, the MSL has been suspended for almost 2 months.

A match between Neroca and Sagolband United ended 3-0 to the I-league side, after which the president and the secretary of the losing side attacked the referee, according to the AMFA official. “Then they approached the high court whereas our constitution dictates that an appeal has to be lodged with us. We have suspended Sagolband for the rest of the season and we have convinced the referees association to take up officiating the matches again.”

The participating teams of the MSL finally came together to form a Manipur State League Participating Teams’ Forum, and laid out a list of demands to be fulfilled by the AMFA. They included engagement of Grade 1 referees, providing live video coverage of games, equal distribution of ticket money between clubs and the association and avoidance of hap-hazard scheduling of games.

Compare this to the Mizo Premier League where every game is live streamed on FB and telecast in High-definition no less by Zonet TV. The MSL does not have its’ own website, FB page or social media account, thus reducing the reach it could potentially develop in a state where 20,000 people turned up for a pre-season friendly between Northeast United and Neroca FC.

A list of demands by the MSLPTF - 1.

‘The focus is completely missing’

Gauramangi explains it best. Having returned home after 17 years, the defender appreciates the fact that the state finally has a professional unit to compete at the highest level but bemoans the lack of growth at the game’s lowest levels.

“Back when I started playing football, I had Renedy to look up to because he was from the same school and we had a team from our town which we saw playing, day in, day out. Now, credit goes to Neroca FC to give youngsters a platform for their ambitions, their dreams.”

“In football, there are three stakeholders - the clubs, the players, the association. Somewhere, the vision of the three is not coinciding in Manipur. We need the right people at the right time, young people to make sure the house is in order. Right now, we don’t want to admit it, but we’re playing catch-up to Mizoram. There, there is no delay and they have embraced new technology. All we have is a tradition of producing a lot of players.”

He hits the nail on the head with the last line. For the last two decades, observers state that there has been no tangible youth development in the state, just a line of players produced due to the efforts of a few individuals and patrons.

Due to the fact that there are a lot of grounds and an endless supply chain of players supplemented by very few coaches, the life cycle of player development is broken, resulting in several players slipping through the cracks, and it’s fair to say that the state’s production line is on an auto-pilot mode.

Significant coaches’ education has also been missing. Take the case of someone like a Deben Thounajam, Jeakson Singh’s father, who was his son’s and Amarjeet Kiyam’s first instructor, but could never obtain a license due to the lack of a formal education. “We have many D and C licenses now but very few B and A license holders,” adds Renedy.

“The focus is completely missing. The clubs and the players are headed in one direction whereas the association is going in another,” says Gouramangi.

“I’ve highlighted all these problems to the Chief Minister but no one wants to listen to us. As usual, progress is painfully slow,” Renedy delivers a damning verdict.

A list of demands by the MSLPTF - 2.

A lack of forward movement

“We could not renovate the pitches due to incessant rain. We’re looking into all their demands and we will try and fulfill them very soon,” is the AMFA official’s explanation.

When asked about the introduction of a Baby Leagues, he nonchalantly passes on the buck, “Youth development is the priority of our affiliated units. They’re the ones who should be looking into this.”

Getting 8 World cuppers from the state has put Manipur football on a false pedestal, an illusion which various stakeholders have carefully cultivated for outsiders to see and marvel. Once a hub of 5-6 national players, they’re down to their last two in Udanta and Jacki.

As the YOSCs and the Virchandra Academies of Manipur act as important feeders, they survive on no patronage due to their undefined role in the ecosystem, if there is in fact one. With no compensation structure in youth football, a few balls and equipment cannot make up for the cost of player development and enhancement.

“If they don’t start one soon, I will take matters into my own hands and start a Baby Leagues soon. It’s now or never,” admits an adamant Renedy, who is starting his own football school Imphal. “Also, we need several Nerocas from the state. Just one will not suffice.”

In the fight for tradition versus modernism, tradition is losing hands down when it comes to the sport. Manipur, which has banked on tradition for the large part of the last three decades, risks frittering away it’s headstart due to a lack of impetus on the part of its administrators. With other regions moving forward and the state at a standstill, it runs the risk of falling behind, by the laws of relative motion.