After his appointment as India under-17 coach in February 2015, Nicolai Adam was taken to the North East. “That’s where the country’s most talented footballers are. It was natural to begin our selection process from there,” Bitan Singh, who was the assistant coach back then, says.
India’s best, though, did not impress Adam. The German liked tall and strong players. And even though the boys from here were quick and skillful, they did not tick the other two boxes. Adam rejected roughly 70 to 80 players from Meghalaya, Sikkim, Mizoram and Manipur because they were ‘too short.’ “His criteria was different. So we started travelling to other states,” Bitan says.
Nearly eight months later, after he scavenged the entire country for talent, the coach returned to Manipur again. This time, he left with players who would make half of his squad. Adam quit earlier this year but the players he picked made the cut when the team was announced on Thursday.
Out of the 21 players selected in the Indian squad for next month’s under-17 World Cup, eight are from Manipur. “After completing our scouting projects all over the country, Adam realised that the skill-set possessed by the players from Manipur was far superior to others. So we returned and these players formed the crux of our squad,” Bitan, now with ISL side Jamshedpur, says.
Some, like midfielders Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem, were included in the squad only in April. They impressed coach Luis Norton de Matos in a friendly where the India U-17 was beaten by Punjab club Minerva’s U-17 team. That match also paved the way for Mohammad Shahjahan’s return, after he was dropped despite being one of the early picks in 2015.
Midfielder Ninthoinganba Meetei has overcome personal tragedy to reach here. Just two months ago, Meetei lost his father due to sudden deterioration of his health. When the news of his selection reached the family in Khoyathong, Imphal, there were mixed emotions. “We are all in a state of shock even now. There’s sadness but we wanted to ensure his focus remains on football,” Ninthoinganba’s sister Sana says. “His selection gives us a reason to smile.”
Ninthoinganba’s father was a milkman. They had their own cattle but the income could barely support the needs of the family of five. His football ambitions, however, were never sacrificed. Like Ninthoinganba, most other players from Manipur too come from a humble background.
Mohammad Shahjahan’s father is a tailor while Boris Singh’s father undertook side jobs to buy football boots. But Mohesh Singh Thangjam also knew football was the only route for his son to lead a better life. The feeling got stronger after he saw Boris play.
Once, he was passing by a tiny field in Imphal when he saw his son pull off a ‘defence tod’ pass. Deep in his own half, the then 11-year-old Boris threaded the ball along the floor to his striker at the other end. Thangjam can’t remember if the move was converted to a goal, what he does know is that that was the moment he had made up his mind: Boris was to be a footballer.
As a child, the wing back juggled between athletics and football, but was leaning towards sprints.
“But when I saw the pass, I told Boris he needs to focus on football,” Thangjam says. By 2014, Boris led Manipur to victory at a youth national tournament, and was selected to the AIFF Academy – from where he later made it to the World Cup squad.
Manipur’s performance at the youth tournaments is one of the main the reasons why they dominate this team. “In 2011, when we had to select players for the AIFF academy in Kalyani, a lot of them were from Manipur because they won the youth national championships that year. That trend continued and those players are now playing across various age-group teams and the senior side,” Bitan says.
Curiously, Manipur’s influence wanes as the age group increases. For instance, at the senior level, Mizo players rule the roost currently with a mix of players from Punjab, Mumbai and Kerala. When he was scouting for players, Adam listed age-fudging as one of the biggest reasons for this whereas former India captain Renedy Singh says lack of opportunities within the state force many players to seek work outside.
“So Manipur does well at junior levels but not so much at Santosh Trophy, for example. Before 2011, we used to have 5 or 6 players in the senior team. After 2011, we hardly have one or two,” Renedy says. “Unlike Mizoram, who have one of the best structures, there was no planning from the Manipur association.”
Renedy hopes this will be the catalyst for change. “But there has to be serious effort. By making this far, these boys have shown that their physique is not a hinderance,” Renedy says. “These players might be short. But they are also the most skilful.”