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The hills have legs: A portrait of Manipur's thriving football community

What does the abrupt end of a road being built, poppy fields and the Golden Triangle have to do with Indian football? This is not a Mastermind quiz with Folklore from a Hoary Past as its specialist subject. This is contemporary reality in Indian football, belonging to one corner of the vast geography that is touched by it. Among the 500 or so footballers who will turn up for the senior ranks in the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League over the next few months, 57 come from Manipur, the place of these strange associations.

Manipur has given India world champions in boxing and weightlifting, as well as footballers of national stature and acclaim. The most famous -- from the 90s onwards, Renedy Singh and Gouramangi Singh Moirangthem, from the last decade Udanta Singh and the U-17 goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem. They come from Sekmai and Moirang, towns which, like those in our story, are also strung out north to south at two far ends of Manipur's largest valley with Imphal as its centre. Along with Sekmai and Moirang, dot Churachandpur in the south and Saikul in the north on a satellite map, and you will find the route moving into clusters of dark green. These are the hill districts from where the path to football is hard, because the hill people believe it involves breaking free of the influence of Imphal, the state capital.

The tension between the hill and valley is complex, the differences not so much of majority/minority populations, but cultural and ethnic differences, between hill tribes and the plainspeople. Meeteis in the plains and Kukis, Nagas, Chins and Mizos, plus more than 30 other tribes, in the hills. The road that ended abruptly is both fact and metaphor for the football community of Churachandpur; because when the 1999 National Games were to take place in Manipur, the town itself had been promised a mini-stadium, with a few disciplines to be held in the hill districts. The road construction around the Games ended at the Churachandpur district boundary, the 50km cycle race route did a u-turn and went back to Imphal and no mini-stadium was built. In between the awarding of the games and the hosting, the government changed hands as did the ethnicities of the two chief ministers.

In footballing terms, commentator Ginkhanmang "Mang" Thaithul says, "Ours (Churachandpur) is the best run football league of all districts with the largest number of clubs but we are zero in terms of infrastructure, investment and information." It is why a bunch of friends, junior footballers with interrupted dreams, are working in Churachandpur to ensure that younger players can leap onto the other side, over the vast chasm they believe exists through the valley.

It is why 238km north, there is a Kuki football academy in Keithelmanbi. It is why 36km east from Keithelmanbi, two men at a school in Saikul have turned to football to get the very young to understand the importance of learning itself, of being in school. And run into situations which, when shared during a cool Imphal night, chilled the bone. Lunkhogin Tuboi, also known as Hegin Len, and David Hangkhanlian Suantak, both teachers, set up Football 4 Change in 2017 in Saikul's SNGC (Sree Narayana Ganga Chauhan) High School. Tuboi/Len knew how to spot talent and send them on their way in football, his nephew Seminlen Doungel being the most famous of them, taken as a teenager to respected coach Sukhwinder Singh at JCT.

Khukhup Seitinkhup is Football 4 Change's young assistant coach and in his first few months at SNGC, found children being absent or very late for football and school time. When he asked them, he remembers, "they said, 'I went to the Kani field otherwise I couldn't buy books or bag.'"

The Kani fields are the poppy fields around Saikul, where children between the ages of 8 and 10 pluck the poppy seeds for Rs 300 a day. The owners of the fields want the very young doing this job, because their hands are small and delicate. They won't damage the plant and, unlike adults, won't steal them either to extract opium. Khukhup's voice remains even but it carries the weight of knowing. "As a teacher, it struck me. I felt ashamed." So must we - knowing that from this place, where children must pluck poppies to buy textbooks, come footballers.

Not one but many in the past - before Len Doungel, there was Seikhohau Tuboi and after him the Haokips, Thongkhosien and Boithang. Out of Football 4 Change across three years, 30 more have joined junior club ranks. Their careers past, present and future become an escape from what are lives of unmitigated bleakness. Everyone, says Khup, is obsessed with the India-Pakistan border, but don't realise that it is the eastern frontiers - Saikul and Ukhrul among them - that are being regularly gnawed at by the Golden Triangle drug trade and its increasing demand. Children have been given their role in the sick business.

Hegin says the SNGC school actually had barracks built around it, an extra line of defence, as a reminder of the place's dark history. It is here that Hegin and David, Delhi University MA & BA degree holders, try to find their patch of light through football. "The public see us as a platform for kids to have a professional career," says Hegin. It is their most successful outcome, but, he says, not their starting point. "It is how do we challenge kids to have hope."

Football 4 Change holds a grassroots league for schoolkids every year, most below the age of 13. The number of teams has increased from five to 12, with the league lasting four months. In the monsoon, they hold free camps for local children. Head coach David says, "Sometimes Hegin and me get depressed, because it's an impossible thing. But each year, we have small achievements and that is pushing us ahead. We want to achieve the unachievable."

Len Doungel believes footballers from the hills have what it takes, "There is a lot of talent there, a lot of strength and the ability to work hard, the hill players have god-given strength but they need the right platform to show their performance." Unlike his career, when he travelled as a young boy with his uncle more than 2500km west to Punjab for a trial, clubs now travel to the hills. Hegin ensures they turn up in Saikul, like Gokulam Kerala did, or NorthEast United did in Churachandpur.

Bengaluru FC's assistant coach Naushad Moosa has travelled to Ukhrul, east of Saikul, this year and signed up three under-13s for BFC's academy at IIS in Bellary, the youngest among them born in 2010. He believes that in the Manipur hill areas he visited there is a paucity in the number of games and from there, a paucity of players. He picked from 35 U-13s and about a dozen U-15s in Ukhrul, "Games are the place where the kids make his (sic) own decisions, where he has to find the solution... so the numbers in the area (are) not much, so it is very important that they get more exposure."

Maybe he should take a trek south to Churachandpur and meet with its team of footballing proselytizers, who claim numbers, clubs, players in spades but limited chances. We are told that the Churachandpur district league is made up of 100+ teams, with 60 in the third division. The town holds four major men's club competitions every year and staged its first women's competition in 2018. On its mud-flat of a ground in Lamka, the centrepiece of all football activity in town. The region's first junior competitions began in 2018 and is run by a 15-strong committee, whose head at 26 is the eldest in the group. Ginlalzem Vaiphei aka Junior Zemz, a junior player from the town who returned home after a fracas with his Goan club in 2014, says, "My professional career may have ended but I thought it should not stop like this, I have something more to do in football."

He runs an organisation called the NorthEast Youngster Footballer, whose main purpose from 2014 onwards, is to hold the first youth tournament of the region, an annual month-long event that brings together the region's junior footballers and have them travel westwards to greater opportunities. From 2018 onwards, the Northeast Youngster Cup has focussed on U-13 and U-10s, and already has had two boys scouted for the Kerala Blasters youth team.

Zemz's friend, fellow footballer S. Liankhosiam, runs his own Happy Feet Academy and says, "Here in Manipur you can be the best of the best and the lucky one among you will survive." They talk of the most famous local Chinglensana Sing, who "left Manipur at 13 - if he was here I don't think he would have made it." Siam's academy has 39 boys in its grassroots programme, 35 in U-17s, at a monthly fee of Rs 200, who practice four days a week, with C and D licence coaches in town, 30-year-old Siam himself holding a C licence. Zemz says the shortfall in facilities is "painful for us - we've got the quality."

He talks large organisations making inroads in Imphal, saying, "Why can't they come to Churachandpur, why cant they come to Saikul? It's not so far. Is it hard for the big clubs to announce that there's going to be a trial?" At the other end of the line, Hegin from Saikul says he believes that football in Churachandpur is "organized" compared to Saikul. In terms of events, he is right. In terms of the trek to the mainstream, it is the footballers from hill districts who must still cover more ground to move an inch ahead.

Manipur was the first of the northeastern states that sent its footballers into the Indian mainstream in the late 1980s, but today, its contrast with the Mizoram football factory stings. Yet, in the hills itself lies a template for a football community seeking direction. From an unusual corner: Lenlai FC, a club run by a government official, TK Simte, the CEO of the Autonomous District Council of Churachandpur, where everyone - from hill and valley - is welcome. It was formed in 2001, in the memory of Simte's uncle, a magazine editor, who was shot dead by militants. The word Lenlai has an identical meaning in many regional languages - Kuki, Chin, Mizo. It refers to an individual's zenith - the peak of their abilities, health and life.

In order for Manipuri football to recover its own Lenlai, it must first work towards a common ground for its young footballers, regardless of geography.

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