Football in the Northeast of India is much acclaimed for the quality of footballers they have produced for the national team and the top division of club football, the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). Some of the finest footballers to have donned the national team jersey are from India’s North-Eastern region. The likes of Talimeran Ao, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Seimenlen Doungel and Halicharan Narzary are some of the stellar names from Northeast to have had the honour of representing the country. And how can one forget Bhaichung Bhutia, the former India captain, who helped Indian football put its stamp on the world map.
It’s not just about the abundance of individual talents, but also the team performances that have caught the eye of football lovers from all over the country. NorthEast United FC reached their maiden Hero ISL semi-final last season. In 2017, Aizawl FC clinched the Hero I-League title, thus becoming the first club from the Northeast to win the I-League.
But interestingly, the rich football culture in the Northeast is not prevalent in the entire region. Few Northeastern states do not have any player representation in the Hero ISL. Football in Northeast continues to thrive without the contribution of the largest state in the region, Arunachal Pradesh.
It’s not that efforts haven’t been made to raise the standard of football in Arunachal, but they have clearly not been enough to make any subsequent impact. In August 2019, Arunachal Pradesh Football Association (APFA) declared the state chief minister Pema Khandu as the President of the Association. He said that the lack of proper coaching facilities, infrastructure and good football academy in the state are major concerns that need to be addressed. Later that month, the untimely demise of promising footballer Mihin Pulo was a great loss for football in Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2012, renowned English football club Reading FC ventured into Indian shores and set up their base in Arunachal. The outcome was no different. Despite their best efforts, the Championship outfit was not able to make much of an impact. The Arunachal Super League, which was launched in 2017, is yet to have any major impact either.
Amongst much frenzy and excitement, the Hero ISL Children’s League was launched on November 23 in Itanagar, the capital city of Arunachal Pradesh. A second league in the state soon followed, when the Children’s League got underway in Pasighat on December 12. This was indeed a landmark development for football in the state as India’s premier grassroots football system gave the children a massive platform to showcase their talent.
Attendance in both Itanagar and Pasighat was more than expected. Children treated it like a football carnival as it was something new for them. They were hungry to step on the pitch and were feeling proud and lucky to wear the kit, bearing the ISL logo.
Ajay Kipa, the Secretary of APFA, was the guest of honour on the opening day in Itanagar. Gumpe Rime, the former goalkeeper from Arunachal Pradesh, who has plied his trade for the likes of Shillong Lajong, Salgaocar, and Mahindra United, was the chief guest on the opening day in Pasighat. Rime, who is currently the goalkeeping coach at Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC), looked thrilled about the football development and the opportunity in hand for the young kids in his home state.
The Hero ISL Children’s League is giving the young kids a glorious opportunity at Under-6, Under-8, Under-10, and Under-12 age group categories. It is up to these young kids to show the fire in their belly, make the utmost use of this opportunity and become icons in their state.
It is high time for someone to step up and be the torchbearer of football in the ‘Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains’.