Monday, December 22, 2014

ISL & NEUFC: Rejuvenating Football in Northeast India

Scene 1:

Year: 2006
Venue: Nehru Stadium, Guwahati
Occasion: Semi-Final of Bordoloi Trophy
Match: Oil India Limited (OIL) vs Assam State Electricity Board (ASEB)
Audience: Hardly 500

That was the first time I watched a football match live in a stadium, that too under flood lights. But even though the match was exciting, the attendance was disappointing.  

Scene 2:

Year: 2014
Venue: Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati
Occasion: League Match of Indian Super League (ISL)
Match: North East United FC (NEUFC) vs Atletico de Kolkata (ATK)
Audience: Above 30,000

This time the atmosphere at the stadium was electrifying, the match was brilliant, the support for the home team was overwhelming and whatever the outcome of the match, it was Football that emerged as the final winner.

The ISL has arrived with its catchy motto: Let’s Football

And while it has rejuvenated the spirit of Indian football, it has also brought into forefront the football skills of the region known collectively as the Northeast India.

Since the time of announcement of the name of the team as North East United FC (NEUFC), the craze among the people of the region seems to have picked up. The craziness and enthusiasm was visible in the form of full capacity crowds at the stadium in all the home matches of the NEUFC.

Ongoing Match: NEUFC vs ATK

While it was known that the Northeast has enough talent, there was no such visible platform to showcase this talent at the national and international stage. The Shillong Lajong club has impressed the football fraternity at the I-League but still there was something still missing to give fillip to the football atmosphere in the region. The ISL finally gave the Northeast the right platform and the right atmosphere. The local players of NEUFC were able to impress the football fraternity with their skills. The young local lads, like Durga Boro, Alen Deory, Robin Gurung, Aiborlang Khongjee, Jibon Singh, Boithang Haokip, Seminlen Doungel, have shown that they have the requisite skill sets to match their foreign counterparts. 

Match about to begin at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati

Northeast India never had the dearth of quality football players. Talimeran Ao was the captain of the Indian national football team in the 1948 London Olympics. Baichung Bhutia, perhaps the most popular footballer from this region, captained the Indian team and is India's most capped football player. The current Indian national football team has six players from the Northeast. Approximately 70 percent of the players of India’s Under-14 and Under-16 team are from this region. The Mizoram state team has won their maiden Santosh Trophy in 2014. This exhibits the talent this region has in terms of football.

The best thing about ISL was that the local players were able to play alongside top players of world football. In case of NEUFC, the local lads surely improved their skills while playing and training with international players like Joan Capdevila and Koke. Under the eyes of their coach, Ricki Herbert, who was a former New Zealand footballer as well as former head coach of the New Zealand national team, the players surely developed as the tournament progressed.

NEUFC may not have performed as per expectations of its supporters at home but it surely has developed its game and in the subsequent seasons we would surely see better football and better results from the team.

The first season of ISL has ended and we have got the first champion of the League in the form of Atletico de Kolkata (ATK). This league has finally been able to provide a platform for Indian football which has taken this sport to more than 400 million homes throughout the country.

But the journey for Indian football has just begun. We are yet to qualify for a World Cup. There is plenty of talent here but there is lots of work to be done at the Grassroots Level. The FIFA Under-17 World Cup will be held in India this time and some of the matches will be played in Guwahati as well. There is need for Football Academies, Football Schools of excellence, etc in the region. Schools may tie up with Football Academies so that the students can pursue the passion for the game as well as excel in their education. 

We, in Northeast India, have immense talent but talent alone cannot win everything. Systematic training, proper facilities, skill development and education for the players are very much necessary to bring out the proper sportsperson amongst them.

With high hopes that Indian Football reach newer heights, I once again reiterate: C'mon India, Let's Football!

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