MOHESH Singh Thangjam sat still in the Fatorda Stadium stands in Goa, a look of astonishment on his face. He had just seen his son Boris slot home a low cross for India to take the lead against the United Arab Emirates in the U-16 AFC Championship. Then, he patiently started answering the congratulatory calls that started coming through. His close friends Mohammed Feroz Khan, Mohammad Rafiq, Mohamad Khoro and Khumanthem Meetei were on their feet, high-fiving each other, punching the air and clapping.
As the tournament progressed, Mohesh would join in the festivities, celebrating the moments of individual brilliance from his son — and those from the sons of his four friends. “Who could have thought this? Five fathers being really good friends, and our five boys, all of them in the national team, being good friends,” says Mohesh.
This was the first time that all five Imphal-based fathers were travelling outside Manipur to watch their sons play. “It was hard for the others to get time off from work. So mostly, I would accompany the boys,” says Mohesh. “Naturally, they would ask me to keep an eye out for their boys,” he adds, laughing.
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This trip though was planned over a month in advance to give them the chance to watch live, their inseparable sons play for India’s under-16 national team.
It took a while though for this combination to come together. While the winger Boris, Rafiq’s goalkeeper son Nawaz, Khoro son’s Rakip in the right-back position and Khumanthem’s son Ninthoinganba, who plays in midfield, had all been selected to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) youth academy by 2014, Feroz would not let his son Sarif play.
“Why are you holding him back? Let the boy play,” Feroz recalls his friends asking. He had wanted his son to forgo his footballing ambitions in favour of a strong academic background to support a career in business. But ever since Sarif made it to the Indian team that will compete at the U-17 World Cup next year, Feroz has regretted his earlier stubbornness. “Had I known he’d get into that team, I’d never have stopped him,” he says.
Feroz, Khoro and Rafiq were the first to join hands. The three grew up in nearby villages in the eastern half of Imphal, within a kilometre of each other. “We used to play football together when we were children,” says Khoro. Poverty, however, did not allow them to follow their dreams. Rafiq and Feroz own and drive their own mini-van, transporting goods such as cement and bricks around the northeastern states. Khoro runs a shoe-repair shop. “I made my son Rakip’s first boots,” he says.
When the trio’s boys started playing football together at the Youth Organisation Sports Club (YOSC) in Imphal, they bumped into Khumanthem and Mohesh. “During training, I’d look up at the stands and see these five parents laughing and chatting,” says N G Bitan Singh, a YOSC coach who first groomed the boys.
This friendship wasn’t just restricted to the YOSC field. “We’d all meet at each others’ houses on Sundays, and for festivals like Eid, Holi and Christmas,” says Feroz. Then, there was the matter of deciding what to do after watching the boys practice at the local grounds. “That’s when we decided to take turns in hosting the others for dinner after games. That would happen, say, two-three times a week,” says Mohesh.
While the India players’ siblings didn’t really talk much during the gatherings, the five themselves had become inseparable. Together, they worked on their game and started improving significantly. But when the AIFF academy scouts started tracking the boys, a temporary partition came about. Nawaz and Ninthoinganba were the first to make it to the academy. “They’d send messages back and tell their friends to try harder because they were waiting for them,” says Rafiq. A year later, Boris and Rakip were added to the roster. Sarif, meanwhile, was alone at home.
Rafiq, Khoro, Khumanthem and Mohesh would often try to convince Feroz to push his son. Sarif, too, didn’t hide his feelings towards his obdurate father. “I’d come home after hard days’ work and ask Sarif how school was. He’d just ignore me. I tried explaining things to him, but he just refused to talk to me,” says Feroz.
Months later, news broke that the U-17 national coach Nicolai Adam was travelling to Imphal to conduct trials for the World Cup squad. “Sarif came up to me and said straight up that he was going for the trials,” says Feroz. “That’s probably the only thing he voluntarily said to me in those days,” he recalls, laughing.
Feroz, however, was aware of his son’s talent. He’d been watching him play at the YOSC, and was certain Sarif would pass the trials. And when he did, Sarif’s first message was to Nawaz, Rakip, Ninthoinganba and Boris at the academy. “Main aa raha hoon (I am coming),” Feroz recalls his son’s message.
In that U-16 match, meanwhile, India went down fighting 2-3 to UAE, before coming back strongly against a favoured Saudi Arabian side, with skipper Suresh Singh Wangjam converting a 95th minute penalty to level the scores at 3-3.
For the last game, the Indians needed a win to secure a knockout stage berth from what was widely considered the Group of Death. But their brave effort — with just 10 men on the pitch — against the favourites Iran saw them trail 0-1 till the 81st minute before two rival penalties pushed them to a 0-3 defeat.