The North-East United FC gave some memorable performances against Chennain FC and Goa, among other teams. The spectators and the football lovers will not forget for a long time, the manner in which the team bounced back from 1-3 down, to beat the hosts Chennaiyin FC 4-3. The team also handled the defending champions, their third straight defeat of the season. The forward Bartholomew Ogbeche was the star of the visiting team, when he scored a superb hat-trick in the second half of the game and saw to it that the North-East United FC romped home comfortably. Likewise, the team from North East also gave a stupendous performance against the on-form Goa, though the match ended in a 2-2 draw. The team led by Ogbeche is gearing up to put up a splendid display against other teams, as the five-month long tournament would culminate in March, next year.
The North-East United FC has been bolstered by the appointment of Eelco Schattorie as the new coach. The former East Bengal coach will have Arthur Papas as his assistant and the ever agile Schattorie has promised that he will take the team to greater heights in the ongoing tournament and in the near-future. Incidentally, the East Bengal club, based in Kolkata, is regretting now for losing a competent coach like Schattorie. East Bengal’s loss is North-East United FC’s gain. The new coach would like to focus on attacking football, given his roots in Netherlands, and often prefer using the flanks, as the outlet during transitions. He is also a stickler for discipline, punctuality and accountability. Schattorie is not averse to formulating multiple strategies for games, as he always emphasis that offence is best form of defence policy in football. The title has eluded the team so far, but it is aiming for the title this year with the head coach around.
The North East United FC’s strongest area undoubtedly is midfield. Bearing this in mind, the team has signed three foreign players Jose David Leudo, Federico Galego and Augustine Okrah. The team also has the likes of Rowlin Borges, Nikhil Kadam and Rupert Nongrum to provide viable options. Moreover, the team’s two tall central defenders - Grgic and Komorski are expected to assist them in set-piece formations. However, the team’s glaring deficiency could be noticed in the absence of quality Indian players to complement their foreign contingent, although the team is confident of a decent performance from players of the caliber of Gurvinder Singh and Keegan Periera, among others. Adding to their misery, lack of quality of goalkeepers in the squad does not inspire confidence, and more, so, with the custodian TP Rehenesh becoming error-prone, of late. The team is having a ray of hope on its mid-fielders Augstine and Redeem Tlang and the strikers like Kivi Zhimomi, apart from the captain Bartholomew Ogbeche. Moreover, the Indian midfielder Rowllin Borges is in a fine nick right from the beginning of the season for North-East.
It may be recalled that the All India Football Federation in February, this year, announced the Indian Super Cup as a replacement for the Federation Cup. The new tournament would be played between 16 teams. The top 6 teams of ISL and I-League, apart from the remaining four will be picked through a qualifier played between the bottom-4 from both the league. As far as the I-League is concerned, Aizawl is the defending champion and has so far gave an impressive performance in the tournament.
It is indeed a welcome sign to note that football in North East has come of age. It was indeed an eye-opener for football fans in India, especially in North East, when Manipur and Mizoram won the Santosh Trophy in 2002 and 2014 respectively. If it was a golden goal that fetched victory for Mizoram 16 years ago against Kerala, the victory by three goals for Mizoram against Railways was much more convincing than the earlier one four years ago. There was a time, Bengal was the Mecca of Indian football, similar to Bombay in cricket and Punjab in Hockey. However, North East proved beyond its supremacy in Indian soccer in the recent past. For instance, the incredible performance of Mizoram in National championship four years ago underscores the phenomenal growth of football in the Northeastern states. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the region is becoming the new hub of Indian football in the recent years.
Bengal, Punjab, Goa and Kerala were force-to-reckon with in football for a long time. However, for more than a decade, Manipur and Mizoram have made other prominent teams in India to look at the North East with awe, admiration, and not, but not the least, inspiration. If football has made considerable progress in North East, and more so, in Mizoram and Manipur, it is to a large extent due to more than adequate support extended by their respective governments and people of the two states. The youth in the region are keen on taking football as their career and are confident of emerging with flying colours like Sunil Chettri and a few other players in the north east. The 34-year-old Chhetri, with his intrinsic ability in dodging and uncanny anticipation with his dribbling and pile-drivers, is gladdening the heart of the football-hungry fans with his fabulous performance for the Bangaluru FC in the ongoing ISL tournament as a captain of the team.
It may be recalled that Lalnghinglova Hmar, journalist-turned-sports administrator and the state association's secretary was instrumental in Mizoram's success. The former scribe lauds the team’s success to its sustained hard work in the Nationals and to the formation of the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) in 2012. FIFA's Regional Director Shaji Prabhakaran, who was part of implementation of the ‘Vision Manipur’, a major programme of the Asia Football Confederation (AFC) in India, attributed that Mizoram's triumph is a success for the programme. He was perhaps right, as Mizoram’s progress started inspiring other states in North East. The infrastructure is no longer a hassle confronting football in the region. The players of repute like Lalrindika Ralte and Jeje Lalpekula from Mizoram, who played for India, are fondly remembered by the lovers of the game. For instance, there was a time when 85 players from Mizoram were playing in the I-League. Lalpekula is of the opinion that in due course, more players from the State will play a pivotal role at the national level.
The Hindi film actor John Abraham earlier said that North East is a hot-bed of football, considering the memorable performance of the region in the recent past. North East is indeed a football nuclear bomb in the making, say a few soccer enthusiasts. Not long ago, Sikkim produced the renowned footballer Baichung Bhutia. Baichung attained the pinnacle of glory, when he became the all-time top scorer at Santosh Trophy team and the second Indian player to play in a European league. However, it was not Sikkim, but Manipur that came out with first source of footballers, who stormed the national scene.
The All Manipur Football Association had done a fabulous job in the late 1990s with the assistance of the Sports Authority of India. Naturally, it was not surprising when the senior team stamped its authority at the national level with the arrival of a numbers of players like Somatai Shaiza, Bijen Singh, Renedy Singh, Surkumar Singh, Tomba Singh, L James Singh and Gouramangi Singh. However, it was Mizoram that surged ahead to chalk out a massive plan for the development of football in the state. Rob Baan, the renowned Dutch football coach, who was appointed earlier as technical director of Indian football by the All India Football Federation, had felt that the pilot project on development should have been launched from Mizoram, considering the huge talent potential of the state.
A major factor that is increasing to the popularity of football in the North East region is to some extent due to the absence of craze for cricket. In the past, the age-group national football teams, as well as senior sides have witnessed a number of Mizo players making a mark of it. It is a pertinent point to assert that Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur have been acting as pillars for other states in North East when it comes to producing quality footballers. The Sikkim, too, has produced players of the caliber of Nirmal Chettri, Sanju Pradhan, Bikash Jairu and Uttam Rai in the last five to six years. Santosh Kashyap, an expert in football at Northeast was entrusted with the responsibility to coach two I-League clubs from Meghalaya, Rangdajied United and Royal Wahingdoh FC and was on the North East United FC coaching staff during ISL 2015. Kashyap is making rapid strides for unearthing budding talent from the region.
The Northeast brand of players hailing from Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram are not found wanting, which prompts other clubs to accommodate them. For example, Jeje Lalpekhlua, ISL 2015’s emerging talent award-winner from Chennaiyin FC, was on the India squad at the SAFF Cup, teaming up with Captain Sunil Chettri. Meghalaya’s Eugenson Lyngdoh, an elegant attacking midfielder, was looked at as a cream of the nation. He was named AIFF Player of the Year by the National Federation and was an asset to the Bengaluru FC in I-League and FC Pune City in ISL. Many such examples can be cited. Mizoram has also launched a grass-root development project for football. Interestingly, politics does not in any way obstruct the development of football in the Northeast. It is indeed a mammoth achievement for soccer administrators in the region.
K. V. Venugopal
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