After Aizwal FC’s historic win in the I- League, Football in the North- East seems to on a roll right now and raising hopes of bright future ahead . And close on the heels of Aizwal FC’s stunning I- league success comes another crowning glory. Now, Manipur’s Imphal-based Neroca FC have shot into the limelight by getting a promotion to the top division of the I-League after having clinched the second division league few days back title by notching up a thumping 4-1 win over Lonestar Kashmir.
Unlike other states in the North – East, Meghalaya and Mizoram, Manipur are novices when it comes to India football. In the early 90s 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.
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 up the scenario :” 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.
Raikhan, 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 points out.