A RESOUNDING 4-1 win over Southern Samity proved to be the fitting end to the season for second division champions Neroca FC. Egged by a boisterous home crowd at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal, and the presence of local stars such as Renedy Singh, Surkumar Singh and Gouramangi Singh, they capped a fairytale finish. The Imphal-based team ensured their promotion to the top division of the I-League having clinched the second division league title last week by notching up a 4-1 win over Lonestar Kashmir.
In the backdrop of Aizwal FC’s Leicester City-like league victory, it is tempting to term this as another Cinderella story from the North- East. But it’s far from true. Unlike Meghalaya and Mizoram, Manipur are not taking their baby steps in Indian football. In the early 90s itself, the state had turned into a scouting ground for institutional clubs such as Air India and BSF, providing a steady stream of national-level footballers.
Bimal Ghosh, former Air India coach, would often be asked to name his team “Air Manipur”, in a lighter vein, due to the high ratio of players from the state. In 2001, when India beat UAE in the World Cup qualifiers, three Manipuris — Renedy, Surkumar and Ratan Singh — featured in the playing XI. But Manipur could do little to tap into their reservoir of players. Despite the overflowing talent, there wasn’t one prominent club from the region. Young talent had no choice but to venture out to other centres such as Kolkata and Goa, which proved to be the more lucrative options.
Neroca FC’s coach Gift Raikhan sums it up perfectly:” We’ve had professional players but no professional club.” As an 11-year-old, Renedy, Manipur’s most accomplished footballer, took a similar path. He got himself enrolled at the Tata Football Academy in the hope of becoming a professional footballer and finding a job in the armed forces. Although the latter did not transpire, Renedy represented several top clubs, including Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and donned the national jersey for almost 13 years.
“We always had players but there were no opportunities back home. I was lucky to find a place in the TFA,” Renedy offers. Set up in 1965, Neroca FC, for long had been content in taking part in the state league and local championships. The idea of trying to break into the national league set-up did not strike them until a few years back. That’s when Gift Raikhan was roped in. His expertise in working with I-league side Pune FC, which shut down in 2015, was vital in helping Neroca making it to the second division and eventually winning it in their second campaign.
Raikhan, who prefers to stay grounded, feels the celebrations are still premature. “Neroca is a 50 year-old club but it’s still way behind in professionalism and mentality. We are still young. We have qualified for the top division. But we have to plan better and at least finish in the top five,” says the Manipuri who was influential in signing up Arata Izumi, a former India international. It may still be early days but the club’s entry provides a glimmer of hope for youngsters in the state who want to represent their city. They will no longer have to travel afar in search of opportunities.
“It’s a great thing for the players in Manipur. I am sure they will get more exposure and chances to show their talent and follow their dreams and help Indian football,” says Izumi, one of the senior-most members of the squad. Neroca’s success lies in their simplicity. They don’t have the best of infrastructure or financial muscle power, and yet have done exceedingly well by getting their basics right. “We focus a lot on grassroots,” the club’s CEO Naoba Thangjam says.
Every weekend, club officials visit kids below 10 and introduce them to the sport. A streamlined U-12,U-14,U-16 and U-18 set-up is also in place at the club. “We develop young talent and as soon as we see them fit to join the senior team, we promote them so that when they reach 20 or 21 they become part of the senior team,” Thagjam explains.
Renedy believes other local clubs should learn from Neroca and develop a proper junior-level programme. “If you conduct training for 2 months, what will they do for the remaining 10 months?,” he says. The 37-year-old reckons this win will bring about a huge change, but asked the association to “wake up”. “They need fresh ideas. Look at Meghalaya and Mizoram. they were nowhere but they had a vision”. Meghalaya and Mizoram may have overtaken them as talent providers in recent times, but Neroca’s I-League qualification in many ways marks the re-emergence of Manipur football.