A boy finds an empty chips packet. He does not throw it away. He stuffs it with chocolate wrappers, paper and more plastic. As his creation begins to take shape he takes a rubber band and ties it around the oddly shaped plastic ball. That is to become his football. It is not a branded one, but nonetheless it is special because it is stuffed hopes and dreams. It is packed with passion, to one day own a branded football along with decent boots and a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey.
The Pool of Talent
Humble beginnings are a common fixture among Northeastern youngsters who dream of playing in a stadium filled with people cheering him on. This is, in some way, the true essence of Northeast Indian football. When it comes to Indian Football, the Northeast is a region that cannot be ignored. In fact, in the team that represented India in the U-17 World Cup, 9 of the players were from the Northeast. The North Eastern lads have once again proved that when it comes to football, we don’t fall behind. Additionally, there is not a single top tier football club in India which does not have a player from the region.
The U-17 team comprised of our very own Komal Thatal who hails from Timberbong, West Sikkim and is a product of Namchi Sports Hostel [NHS]. Thatal was accompanied by 8 other talented players from the region namely Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Dheeraj Singh, Jeakson Singh, Boris Singh, Mohammad Shahjahan, Nongdamba Naorem, Suresh Singh and Ninthoinganba Meitei, all of whom are from Manipur.
Obstacles and Defeat
While all these young and talented players are currently winning hearts and laurels for the country, they all have one thing in common – the lack of enough facilities within their own region which forced them to leave home at an early age and train hard elsewhere to reach a stage where they can represent the country on national and international platforms. The fact that stings the most is that many of these players could not get even get standard coaching as they could not afford the expensive fees. They could only afford to spend whatever little their parents managed to send.
In the opening game, the boys had lost to United States with a 0-3 score line. In the 2nd match against Columbia, it was narrow 1-2 defeat even though the boys had played really well. And finally India’s dreams of lifting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2017 ended with a 0-4 defeat at the hands of Ghana in front of more than 40,000 supporters at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. Many had hoped that the boys will be able to pull off a miracle that day and win the match but sadly that did not happen.
Even then, Indian football supporters across the country cheered them on till the last game and most of the posts on social media after the match were positive. The collective voice said, ‘These boys are young and they have potential for the future.’
The Other Side
In fact, not many experts and fans had expected India to reach the top 16 before the World Cup started and that’s what happened. During the tournament, emotions got the better of us and many started to believe that the boys can actually make it to the next round, especially after the first match against USA where India showed many flashes of brilliance though they were not consistent and the USA team used it to their advantage. That is the thing with football, it gives you hope and the story of these young boys ignited new hope among all the Indian football fans that the future of this beautiful game is in safe hands or should we say feet, like the new Indian Super League Promo which claims that footballers write their future with their feet.
But again, at the end of the day, we do have to be realistic because the Under-17 team had qualified for the World Cup as hosts and not on merit. The boys had played in the AFC Under-16 tournament in Goa last year which was the qualification round for Asia where they had failed to make the cut. However, as the host nation, they were certain to feature in the World Cup. If we were not the host, we probably would not have witnessed the boys compete this year.
The Silver Lining
All things said and done, they still deserve a pat on their backs for their efforts. They should also hold their heads high because they have given new hope to football fans across the country. In the coming years, many of these talented players will most likely make it to the India senior team where they will script a better history for Indian Football.
It is noted that the All India Football Federation also did play a part in helping these boys pick up the pace by sending them to over 18 countries in the last 2 years to get the right kind of exposure and learn. Football supporters and players across the country are now hoping that this kind of support from the Federation aided by the Government will continue in the future as well.
The Rising Stars
As we all know football is a team sport and all the boys in the Indian team performed well however the tournament brought to the limelight some impressive young Indian players like the goalkeeper- Dheeraj Singh, who made many wonderful saves in all 3 matches. Without him, India would have conceded many more goals.
Komal Thatal from Sikkim was another player who got lot of attention in the first match against USA. Unfortunately, he was dropped for the remaining 2 matches by the coach, Lius Norton de Matos. The coach had later explained that he had kept Komal on the bench when they played against the Columbian team and the Ghana team is because of his physique. Both the Columbian and Ghana teams had sturdy and tall defenders. This time, he may not have had a chance to show fans all of his skills on the field but we will surely see more of this talented Sikkimese lad in the future.
Another player who showed potential was centre back Anwar Ali from Punjab. A cool and composed player, he was impressive in all the 3 matches. 16-year-old midfielder Jeakson Singh from Manipur also stood out from the rest of his squad when he scored India’s first World Cup goal against Colombia. Jeakson with his performance in the tourney has certainly managed to carve a niche for himself in Indian Football. ‘When he was young, we told him to concentrate on his studies and not playing football. But he kept on playing soccer, even used to forget to eat food. Whenever I beat him to eat his food, he told me, “Father, I don’t mind skipping food, but I don’t want to skip playing.” Today, I am happy that my son scored the first goal for the Indian team and words cannot express how happy my family and I are. I am very proud of him,’ Jeakson’s father told to a national daily.
The duo of Boris Singh and Rahul Kannoly Praveen were also impressive in defending and contributing in attacks.
The Road Ahead
The Under-17 World Cup tournament has proved to the world that we do have a strong bunch of young footballers who are just raring to go. It was especially heartening to see most of the national media covering the India matches. This has rarely happened to Indian football before. What was started by the Indian Super League in 2014 has been taken forward by the Under-17 World Cup. The game of football has finally managed to create a huge fan base despite the fact that India is a country where people are extremely fond of cricket. This love for the sport will also spark an interest amongst the young to play football.
No matter how our League structure improves in the future, or how many professional clubs come up in the country, the national team’s success is vital for football to become popular in the country. In fact, the senior Indian team has quietly booked their tickets for the Asian Cup, 2019 to be held in UAE a few days back after beating Macau 4-1. Their victory was overshadowed to a certain extent by the Under-17’s World Cup campaign but there are no complaints as for the first time it was not cricket which had taken away the focus but their juniors.
Now is the time for all the stakeholders in the country to cash in on the hype and make the most of it. We have lost many opportunities in the past and time is running out. It’s about time the Indian Football team start winning matches against stronger teams as well as our hearts. Let’s treat this World Cup as the foundation upon which the launch pad for the success of Indian Football will be built. Lastly, let’s not forget the contribution of the former head coach, Nicolai Adams and his team of coaches who were behind finding all these talented footballers from across the country by going out on a scouting mission.
Even on a state level, a lot can be done. The Sikkim Division League and Governor’s Gold Cup 2017 was well organised and it was well received by the football enthusiasts across the State. Some matches were played in the evening which helped take football to the masses. It is not a common sight to see a local league to attract such a huge crowd in Sikkim.
However, we need to remember that the effort of the State Associations will be futile if they were not backed properly. There is need for more corporate backing and involvement from the community at every stage.
The involvement of players from the Northeast in the Indian U-17 team has helped people become interested in the game and has inspired the youth to take up football as a career. The fact that football is being considered a viable career option in the region is a game changer and the significance of that cannot be downplayed.
Without any doubt, the Northeast is the key to making India a big name in football. The players from the Northeast not only carry tales of hardships, but also responsibility of taking the region’s legacy forward and we know that they will do us proud.