Football, Manipur’s passion, takes a backseat as the state burns

Nobody is winning this war, says former India captain Gourmangi Singh as young talents seek transfer to other states

A house burning in Manipur (Photo: @ashoswai/Twitter)
A house burning in Manipur (Photo: @ashoswai/Twitter)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Less than five months back, Imphal — the state capital of Manipur — was the vibrant host of a tri-nation football tournament involving India. As many as seven players were from the state, hardly surprising in recent years as the scenic state of the North East had been the biggest cradle of footballing talent in the country.

The scenario has, however, undergone a dramatic transformation, thanks to the ethnic violence which has gripped the state since early May. There seems to be no end in sight — something which has forced the youth of the state to keep their passion for the game in the backburner — with a host of local footballers who were a part of the Manipur State League (MSL) last season seeking transfers to other states.

As the strife between the Meiteis and the Kukis reached the flashpoint, there have been heart-rending stories of well known professional players suffering on either side of the divide. Chinglensana Singh Konsam, a national team defender who plays for ISL club Hyderabad FC, had his dream home in Moirang, torched, vandalised and looted.

Thongkoseim Semboi Haokip, a former India under-23 striker who has played for top flight Indian clubs like Kerala Blasters, Bengaluru FC and East Bengal, had to flee his house alongwith family members for being a Kuki amid an area dominated by Metieis — first seeking shelter in an Army relief camp in Mantripukhri and then moving on to Gangpijan.

‘’Until now, peace has not been restored. It’s very confusing at the moment as to what we are going to do. Where can I build my house and what is the government doing?,’’ a distraught Konsam said in a recent interview.

It’s clear that there is no immunity for even big names in this mayhem — forcing several young footballers to give up on their practice and move into an active role to protect their villages from the mobs. A Times of India report says that already 70-80 players, including youngsters, have sought transfers at the Manipur Soccer Association — most of them eyeing Bengaluru, Tripura and even Jharkhand.

Former India captain and current Goa FC assistant coach Gourmangi Singh (Photo: Goa FC)
Former India captain and current Goa FC assistant coach Gourmangi Singh (Photo: Goa FC)
Goa FC

‘’I am praying everyday that things fall into place quickly and peace returns. If we look at it from a human side, nobody is winning or losing this war,’’ Gourmangi Singh, a former India captain and currently assistant coach with ISL team Goa FC, told National Herald.

The situation being so sensitive now, Gourmangi feels the ambience is hardly right for football to thrive as safety of the people and their property is paramount on the agenda now. A sad commentary for a state which prides on the assembly line of footballers it has produced over the last 25 years – from the likes of Renedy Singh, Gourmangi, Surkumar Singh to stalwart women footballers like Bem Bem Devi or a Bala Devi.

What’s more, even Biren Singh — the state’s Chief Minister from BJP who is in the eye of the storm — has represented Border Security Force (BSF) team in Durand Cups.

‘’I have closed down my academy and taken up the assignment of Assistant Coach of Bengaluru FC,’’ Renedy Singh, a former India captain and an extremely popular name in Kolkata’s football circles, said in a recent chat.

In a signed article with a major English daily after the first round of violence in May, Bem Bem Devi appealed: ‘’All we demand is peace. That’s what we have requested from the central and state governments.

‘’Violence has impacted our everyday lives. Speaking from a sportsperson’s point of view, the training of every athlete has come to a standstill because of the curfew. This is a very crucial period since the Asian Games are scheduled to be held in September-October and the selection trials are underway in many sports.

‘’There are few sports in which a Manipuri athlete won’t be representing India at the Asiad, such is the pedigree of our state. But the participation of the athletes remains uncertain due to the prevailing situation. I am the head of scouting for the All India Football Federation and because there is no internet, I am not able to discharge my role. I can’t even access my emails!,’’ she reflected.

The most important question on the sports icons’ minds, much like the whole country, is there a end in sight?

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Published: 27 Jul 2023, 3:05 PM