Manipur’s magnificent eight
India’s bid to win the Fifa U17 World Cup ended after losing to the US, Colombia and finally, Ghana. The game created so much excitement and enthusiasm in Manipur that while the matches were being played, roads in the Imphal valley as well as in the hills wore a deserted look —all because eight of the 11 players were from Manipur.
The matches were also shown on giant screens in many places. Initially, the coach of the Indian team, Nicolai Adam, found that Manipuri players lacked the height to make it to the international arena and discarded as many as 70 to 80 aspirants.
However, before the final selection, Bitan Singh, then assistant coach, and Adam travelled to other states hunting for talent. After about eight months, Adam turned his eyes on Manipur again and found that the eight hand-picked in Manipur were far superior to the others. Seven months before the tournament started he was replaced by Luis Norton de Matos.
The team comprised Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem (goalkeeper), Boris Thangjam (defender), Amarjit Kiyam (midfield, captain), Jeakson Singh, Md Shahjahan, Ninthuinganba Meetei, Suresh Singh Moirangthem and Khumanthem Ningthoinganba Meetei.
Dheeraj Singh, known as the “Wall of India”, was selected to train at the AIFF Academy in Kalyani in West Bengal. It is from there that he shaped his career. He caught the attention of the national media and was also praised by the US coach and two other international coaches. He was told by Indian officials to stay back in New Delhi while his colleagues returned home after India found itself out of the tournament.
Thangjam Boris was the defender, an integral part of India’s long-drawn preparation for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Sadly, he had to sit out his team’s moment of reckoning — the opener in New Delhi on 6 October against the US — as he was ruled out after being shown a red card against Iran in the AFC U-16 Championship in Goa last year. Amarjit Singh Kiyam trained at the Chandigarh Football Academy. He will be remembered in the history books of football as the boy who led India in their first Fifa World Cup tournament. A couple of days before the team’s final preparation,
India’s coach did a snap poll among the team members and Amarjit was chosen captain of the FIFA U-17 World Cup squad. It was mainly because of his three goals in CFA’s win over the India U-16 team during the Subroto Cup final in 2012, which gave him his big break in 2015.Two years later, it was announced that he was set to lead the Under-17 team at the Fifa event. Jeackson Singh was rejected by the national selectors in 2015 when he was with the Chandigarh Football Academy. But that did not deter him and he went on to join Minerva where he garnered U-15 and U-16 national titles. He was later invited for the trials in Goa and subsequently selected to be a defensive midfielder in the 21- member Indian team for the World Cup.
After representing the All Manipur Football Association, Md Sahjahab took part in the AIFF Festival for boys under 12-13 at Kalyani in 2012. After that championship, his talent was recognised and he was selected for India’s U-17 squad for the World Cup. He joined the coaching camp in Goa and finally made it to the team.
Naorem Nongdamba quit his studies after matriculation, much to the dismay of his father, and participated instead in a tournament at Chandigarh, where he scored 18 goals and came to be known as the “Goal Machine”.
Within a short period, he received good exposure in several foreign displays. The skilful winger also scored India’s only goal against Chile in their impressive 1-1 draw against the Latin biggies in a friendly match in 2014. The Imphal-based player is comfortable on both the flanks. Suresh Singh Moirangtham’s dream was to participate in the Under-17 World Cup when he was 13 and it came true. He was the captain of the Indian team for last year’s AFC U-16 Championship held in Goa and also scored a last gasp penalty in the 97th minute to tie the match against Saudi Arabia, the only Asian side to win the U-17 World Cup. Prior to that he also took part in the Manchester United Premier Cup held in Malaysia in 2013 and 2014.
Khumanthem Ninthoinganba Meetei was selected because of his hard work and skill for the World Cup coaching camp in Goa. The speedy winger showed his commitment and determination, taking the field just three days after his father’s death. Most importantly, India scored the first ever World Cup goal in its second match against Colombia on 9 October and this is, undeniably, history.
The goal was scored by young mid-fielder Jeakson Thounaojam. The captain of the team is another midfielder from Manipur, Amarjit Kiyam. Then again, there’s no forgetting star footballer Dheeraj Moirangthem, who has thousands of fans throughout the country.
State government reserves jobs for sportsmen who have won laurels, and these players, just like government employees, have to earn their salaries. However, sportspersons play to win dignity for the nation and they should be made to feel secure. They must be provided with the maximum privileges. Once a player is given a job, he/she will be confined to working hours that are bound to affect their calibre. Instead of jobs, they should be encouraged in their particular areas of sport.
On 1 October, state sports minister, Haokip, offered the eight U-17 Manipur players Rs 10,000 each from his own pocket as a token of encouragement. He said, “The government has a policy to reward players. Every sportsperson who represents the state or the country in the international arena is given Rs 5,00,000 as an incentive.”
Haokip also said that a “super special incentive” for the players was also being planned by the state government if India won but did not divulge what it was. There is a five per cent job reservation for sportspersons in every department. In some cases, outstanding sportspersons are given jobs immediately by creating suitable posts commensurate with their qualifications.
People were of the view that the Fifa U-17 World Cup was a grand opportunity for young players to play at the international level. They should now be encouraged and provided with adequate training facilities and appropriate infrastructure.
The Modi government has sanctioned the setting up of a sports university in Manipur and hopefully it will materialise soon enough. People in the mainland need to realise that given the opportunities, the North-east will not be lacking in producing sportspersons of international standard.
While presenting the cheque of Rs.5,00,000 to each player at a reception, chief minister Biren Singh said, “The state government had earlier announced cash rewards in recognition of the hard work, achievements and performances of the players.
The cash prize did not imply the state government is financially sound but these were token gifts of appreciation and love for their sportsmen on behalf of the 2.8 million people of the state.” Might one take this as a dirge for the first-ever BJP state government in Manipur, especially as there doesn’t appear to be any dearth of lucre for election campaigns?
(The writer is a free lance contributor based in Imphal)