The year is 2017, the date is the 9th of October 2017 and the day is Monday. The event- FIFA U-17 World Cup. A corner is swung in by a player and another player leaps over two towering defenders of the opposition team and heads towards the goal. As the ball goes past the keeper and rattles the net, the stadium erupts. And just like that history is made. The match is between India and Columbia and India was trailing 1-0 till then. India went on to lose that match 2-1. But history was written that day. The aforementioned goal was the first goal by an Indian player in any FIFA World Cup. And the player was Jeakson Singh Thounaojam.
Hailing from the tiny state of Manipur, he was at the forefront of Indian footballing history. Though being a part of Indian sporting history, is nothing new for somebody hailing from Manipur. Manipur has produced multiple elite athletes in different sports of different stature and acclaim from Mary Kom in boxing to Kunjarani Devi in weightlifting who have won medals in multiple tournaments. Players like Potsangbam Renedy Singh have been a part of the Indian Football team which won the first Nehru Cup in 2007 and multiple SAFF championships. This tiny hamlet of a state in comparison to the vast peninsula that is our country has always been good at giving a disproportionate amount of good football players.
This is a new era for Indian football. The advent of ISL has seen a renewed interest in football among the masses. The future of football in India seems to be on the right path and we can be sure that the tiny little state of Manipur will play a huge role in it. And if we are looking for proof about the role of Manipuri players in Indian football, we have to look no further than the last season of ISL which had 26 Manipuri players representing the various teams. That was by far the most players represented from any state to play in the top professional league in the country. The year gone by was different. March 2020-March 2021. Lots of things changed for a lot of people. Covid-19 redefined our world in various ways. But one thing it didn’t change or redefined was the contribution of Manipur in Indian football. The recently concluded ISL 2020-20 still had the most players from Manipur and the number only increased to 43.
Different players represented different teams with Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC having the highest number of players from Manipur with seven each. Jeakson Singh Thounaojam who already has etched his name in Indian footballing history at such a young age also represents Kerala Blasters. Next is SC East Bengal with six players, Mumbai City FC has 5 players, FC Goa with 4 players and Odhisha FC and Chennaiyin FC with 3 players each and Jamshedpur FC, ATK Mohun Bagan, Hyderabad FC and North-East United FC with two players.
Kerala Blasters are represented by Nongdamba Naorem, N. Mahesh Singh (both forward), Jeakson Singh, Givson Singh (both midfielders), Denechandra Meitei, Seityasen Singh, Sandeep Singh Soraisam (all defenders).
Bengaluru FC has signed the likes of Udanta Singh, Semboi Haokip (both forward), Suresh Singh, Thoi Singh, Ajay Chhetri(On loan to East Bengal), Naorem Roshan Singh (all midfielders), and defender Wungngayam Muirang.
SC East Bengal has secured the services of Rohen Singh, Loken Meitei, Haobam Tomba Singh, Surchandra Singh, Y.Gopi Singh and Wahengbam Angousana who are all midfielders.
Tondonba Singh, Mohamad Rakip(defenders) along with Jackichand Singh, Bipin Singh and Bidyananda Singh(midfielders) are playing for Mumbai City FC while ATK Mohun Bagan FC has S. Ranjan Singh( defender) and midfielder N. Engson Singh with them.
Chennaiyin FC Regan Singh, Remi Aimol (both defenders) and midfielder Thoi Singh while FC Goa has goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangtham, Makan Chote (forward) Amarjit Singh(forward) and goalkeeper Mohd Nawaz. As for Jamshedpur FC, they have roped in forward Seiminlen Doungel( On loan from FC Goa) andManisana Singh ( midfielder) and Borish Thangjam(Defender).
Midfielder Imran Khan and Ningthoinganba Meetei are with North East United FC while Thoiba Singh and L.Premjit Singh (both midfielders) have signed on with Odhisa FC. Chinglensana Singh and Mohd. Yasir (both defenders) have been roped by Hyderabad FC.
The huge representation from Manipur might lead some people to think this is a case of quantity over quality but that’s not the case here. The players may not have taken the league by storm but they did leave their mark. Chief among them being, Bipin Singh from Mumbai FC. He played 22 matches this season scoring 6 goals( 14th on the Goal scoring list) and assisted 4 times( 11th on the list). Even if we ignore his overall brilliant performance, the fact that he scored the winning goal in the ISL 2020-21 final, makes him worth every penny Mumbai FC paid for him. In the plethora of foreign talents, Mumbai has at its disposal, Bipin Singh has made his mark.In what was a disappointing season for Chennai FC, Reagan Singh had a good season. He was number 11 on the list of defenders with the most interceptions with 38 in 18 matches. Reagan had a good season at right-back, providing plenty of support in attack down the right flank and also showing defensive solidity at the back. Another defender that had a good season was Chinglensana Singh. With 26 interceptions and 76 clearances (11th best in the league), he was an indispensable part of Hyderabad FC’s defence. Sana, as he is known, has also been exceptional at ball distribution with 741 passes at an accuracy of 84.34%( 4th in the league). The aforementioned players were the ones who rose above everybody else from the state. But others didn’t do too badly as well. Out of the 43 players from Manipur plying their trade-in ISL, 15 players had at least a goal or an assist to their name. Four players both had a goal and an assist.
The numbers may paint a picture of a state with well-developed infrastructures to produce so many talents but the reality is different. Many of the players to accomplish what they have, had to move far away from home to develop their talents. The situation is not as bleak, as there is a certain level of infrastructure but it needs more development to find and polish the abundance of talents Manipur holds. Yes, many of the players have had to struggle and fight the circumstances to reach where they are but maybe that is the reason Manipur has so many players in the ISL.What the future holds for many of these players we cannot proclaim as the beauty of the game is its unpredictability. But what we can be assured of is that this tiny little footballers factory called Manipur in the North-Eastern part of this country will keep on producing footballers in fine quantity but they will also have the quality to go with it. We may never know what we may find if we go searching in the beautiful valleys of Manipur.