As the national coach for a brief period in 1990, Anjan Chowdhury will be remembered for his hugely controversial decision to drop Krishanu Dey from the squad for the SAF Games in Pakistan. Many felt it cost India dear as they failed to reach the final.

But Chowdhury has a major contribution to Indian football which is rarely spoken about. As the head coach of Sports Authority of India’s Special Area Games, he was instrumental in raising a team that made the nation realise the true talent and potential of footballers from the northeast region of the country, which remained mostly untapped till then.

The rise of football in northeast

The concept of National Football League was still 10 years away when the SAG scheme kicked off in 1986. There was not a single club from the northeast, who could claim of making even a decent impact in the domestic arena. Yet, within four years of starting the scheme, the national team found a steady flow of footballers coming from the northeast. In the next 30 years, they have become the overriding force in Indian football – the traditional dominance of Bengal, Goa or Punjab players in blue jersey has completely been shattered.

“If I remember correctly, Kiron Khongsai, Gunabir Singh and Jewel Bey were among the first to break into the senior national side,” said Chowdhury, currently coaching in England.

“In 1986, I travelled extensively in northeast states like Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram to pick up talented youngsters from remote areas. Those days, no other agency made this effort. The Tata Football Academy began their talent hunt in the northeast only after being encouraged by our success,” added Chowdhury.

Having started with a meagre budget of Rs 3 lakh, the SAG scheme headed by BVP Rao, an IAS officer then posted as officer on special duty in SAI, turned out to be a big success only to be discontinued by the government in later years.

But luckily, the trend that began in the early 1990s became a part and parcel of Indian football. In fact, over the years, the clubs and academies in northeast states have become chief nurseries for supply of players to clubs in the rest of the country; it hardly matters in which part of India the recruiting club is based.

Manipur and Mizoram lead the way

However, to say footballers are coming in huge numbers from the northeast states isn’t very accurate; it is a generalisation often made without deep knowledge of football in the region. In reality, a big bunch of talented footballers are mainly coming from two states, Manipur and Mizoram, the other states in the region can hardly match their efforts.

A look at the current list of Indian Super League footballers would reveal the exact inclination. “Out of the 270 registered Indian footballers in the ISL, 100 are from the northeastern states. The majority of these players come from Manipur and Mizoram. While Manipur have contributed 46 players in this ISL, Mizoram have 30. The two states alone constitute more than 25% of total Indian players in ISL,” Tathagata Mukherjee, an independent football consultant said.

It’s an impressive figure. But in addition to 100 of their players playing in the ISL, the northeast states still have three teams – Aizawl FC, Neroca and TRAU – playing in the I-League, the unofficial second division league of Indian football.

Some of the Manipur footballers have made real impact in this season’s ISL. Like Mumbai City FC’s Bipin Singh, who so far has scored the only hat-trick of the 2020-’21 season, Hyderabad FC’s Chinglensana Singh or Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Wangjam. The same can be said about Mizoram-born players like Chennaiyin FC’s Lallianzuala Chhangte or Lalengmawia, who, commonly known as Apuia, remained key to NorthEast United’s spectacular run this season.

Scope for improvement?

Yet, in some quarters, a feeling can’t be ignored that though Indian football has witnessed a steady stream of good players from the northeast, most of them have failed to attain the next level despite early promises.

A top coach of the country, who doesn’t want to be named, said: “There is absolutely no doubt that states like Manipur and Mizoram are India’s talent hubs. They have left football-playing states like Bengal, Goa, Punjab or Kerala far behind. But at the same time, they have lagged behind in producing true impact footballers. Barring Bhaichung Bhutia, Renedy Singh, Jeje Lalpekhlua or Udanta Singh, I can’t really recall a northeastern footballer who could single-handedly change the course of a match.”

Former India coach and Dhyan Chand award winner Sukhwinder Singh said: “There is absolutely no doubt the Indian clubs have become heavily dependent on footballers from northeast. They are hard-working and want to progress in life. That football is still the number one sport in the northeast is one reason why they are doing well. At the same time, the general sense of decision-making on the pitch of many of them has to be improved to reach the next level.”

Another reputed coach Subhash Bhowmick said: “What turns a footballer from a good player to an excellent one is his skill, which should be extraordinary. And for that, one needs a great deal of intelligence. A combination of both makes one an impact footballer. Not every good footballer can reach that level. It is not easy. You don’t get to see such footballers every day in Indian football.”

Well, notwithstanding the debate whether footballers from the northeast states have really managed to turn themselves into game-changers, there is no doubt about the fact that states like Manipur and Mizoram have done wonders at a time when almost every youngster in the country wants to see himself/herself as the next superstar in cricket’s cash-rich Indian Premier League.

That these two states in particular are producing a large number of top-class footballers is not without a reason. Both the states benefited to an extent from the Vision India programme that was started by All India Football Federation at the behest of Fifa at the turn of the century. At the same time, both have managed to develop a comprehensive football structure within the states with competitive leagues and tournaments. It has definitely helped in attracting more youngsters to the game.

Dwindling interest?

But there is another side to the story, too, which is not exactly encouraging. AIFF’s drive to expand the I-League into a true pan-India meet few years ago gave a real thrust to football in the northeast. Aizawl FC won the historic I-League title in 2016-’17 season and went on to play the AFC Champions League playoff rounds.

In the 2017-’18 season, Neroca Football Club from Manipur finished runners-up in I-League and till date is the only team from the region to make the final of the prestigious Durand Cup. Another top club from the region, Shillong Lajong, made huge impact in the I-League though they could never match the success of Aizawl FC or Neroca.

But ever since the I-League was demoted at the expense of ISL, there has been a definite dip in interest. A few seasons ago, Lajong played the I-League mostly with their academy players and were soon demoted. They quickly withdrew from the system.

Aizawl FC, too, is not the team it used to be. With just one franchise being propagated as the true representative of the region, sponsors are fast losing interest in other clubs. This is certainly not a healthy sign for football in the region.

But given the fact that the very system of Indian club football has become truly one-dimensional, an immediate course correction seems an unlikely scenario. At least in the near future.