ISL has revived an interest in football in Assam, but will it be enough to bring back the lost glory of the Bordoloi Trophy days?
Football has never been just a sport in the Northeastern part of India, particularly in Assam. It has been a way of life for most youngsters here who grow up by dribbling a leather ball on the dusty roads and grassy meadows of the region. However, over the years, the interest for the game had dwindled particularly in Assam as people started following the most popular sport of the country, cricket. But thanks to Hero Indian Super League (ISL), a franchise based football league modeled on the Indian Premier League (IPL), football is again back as the numero uno sport in the region.
North East United FC, the club representing the region in ISL, received unprecedented crowd support in the first edition in all its home matches played at the Sarusajai stadium in Guwahati. Though the team which is owned by Bollywood superstar John Abraham couldn’t make it to the top stage, they earned a lot of fans and in this edition, they are expected to do even better.
Ankur Dutta, Secretary of Assam Football Association admits that ISL has brought back people to the football stadiums, ‘ISL is the complete package. There was a time when football was perhaps the most popular sport not just in the Northeast but in the entire country, but after the advent of cable television, viewers had access to top leagues like English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A via television. So, the quality of football being played here naturally didn’t appeal to them. But ISL has definitely raised the bar of the game with the involvement of retired superstars from world football like Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, David Trezeguet and Joan Capedevilla’. He adds, ‘The popularity of ISL has helped the sport regain its earlier popularity to some extent. We organized the Assam State Premier League (ASPL) this year which was a huge hit. There were massive crowds in places like Diphu and Kokrajhar’.
Revival of Interest
Hem Das, the legendary football coach who runs the Guwahati Young Star Coaching Centre which is the oldest coaching centre in the State and also a coaching centre in Rani for female footballers, says that post ISL, more youngsters are enrolling for soccer coaching. Also, with the U-17 football world cup matches slated to be held in Guwahati, the popularity of the game is expected to only rise.
Das, who has nurtured talents like Durga Boro and Alen Deory, says that many talented footballers here lose out in the long run because of financial constraints. ‘There is no dearth of talent in Assam’s villages, but many youngsters can’t even afford a pair of decent boots. They suffer from malnutrition because of the lack of a proper diet. If money comes to the game because of ISL, hopefully, things will change for the better’.
No Easy Goal
Even though ISL has revived interest into the game in the State, Assam is still nowhere to be seen in the national scenario. While three clubs from Meghalaya- Shillong Lajong FC, Royal Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United FC and one from Mizoram- Aizawl have made it to the I-League, no club from Assam has been able to manage the feat yet. Also, the number of players from Assam playing in I-League is much less compared to those from Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram. These players have also represented prestigious clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers as well.
Former international player Toshen Bora says, ‘Ultimately, ISL is not a FIFA recognized league. ISL is like T-20 and I-League is Test Cricket. And, everybody knows that at the end of the day, it is Test Cricket where your performance matters most. So, it is difficult to say whether ISL will really revamp football in Assam’.
Another former Indian national and one of the greatest centre forwards the State has ever produced, Gilbertson Sangma opines that the game though still popular in rural areas, has lost its sheen in cities. ‘You hardly see any crowds during football matches in big cities like Guwahati, Tezpur, Nagaon and Jorhat. However, the case is not the same in villages. Few months back, I went to Hajo, where I saw a gathering of around 6000 people who assembled together to watch a local league match’ he said.
Entrepreneur Sanjeev Narain, who is one of the co-owners of Guwahati FC which made it to the second division of I-League, meanwhile maintains that football in Assam is perhaps going through one of its best phases in recent times. ‘The craze for ISL has made it clear that football is still very popular in Assam. We are now planning to bring back the old glory of the Bordoloi Trophy. Next time, we will not just bring top clubs of our country like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan but also teams from Thailand, Bhutan and Bangladesh’.
The Way Forward
It can be said that with ISL, a beginning has been made. There was a time when Guwahati used to come to a standstill during Bordoloi Trophy matches and almost similar scenes were witnessed during the ISL matches last year. NEUFC is currently camping in South Africa where they will play practice matches against quality opponents and will also be availing world class training facilities next to the Moses Mabhida stadium, one of the host venues for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Such exposure certainly augurs well for the youngsters who are part of this squad.
However, the myopic outlook of the government towards the game is being regarded as the primary reason for Assam still lagging behind in football. The chant of ‘Let’s Football’ for two months of ISL is not enough to save the game. The Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs needs to take concrete steps to ensure football are restored to its former glory in the State.
This article was published in the October, 2015 issue of Eclectic Northeast