While Shillong Lajong were squaring off against East Bengal at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Shillong, a few distinct murmurs could be heard. “This is going to be the last season of the I-League.” “Shillong will play in the second division next year.”

That’s right, Lajong fans, Meghalayans for whom football is a way of life rather than a mere sport were discussing the All India Football Federation’s plans for a revised league structure next season, one which didn’t involve their team playing in the top division.

They may be living in a remote region but one cannot accuse them of not knowing their football. The disappointment on their faces was palpable. After several years of struggle their team was finally experiencing a breakthrough season and on the verge of finishing in the top half of the table. Yet, their team’s fate is highly uncertain as they may not even play in the top division come next season.

The heart and soul of Indian football

Lajong are however, not the only surprise package from the Northeast making waves this season. Nor are they most fascinating story of the campaign. That honour goes to little Aizawl FC, all the way from Salem Veng.

They may have been beaten 1-0 by Bengaluru but remain in contention for what may very well be the last I-League title. Irrespective of what happens in the title race, the Mizo team deserves credit for the fight they have shown.

Aizawl recently recorded their highest ever attendance of 11,845. The figure may not seem very high but that would be an absence of context. The 2011 census tells us that Mizoram’s capital has only three lakh inhabitants while Shillong has 50,000 more. Hence, we are talking about 4% of a town coming to watch a football match!

Most astonishing is the fact that this figure is almost double the official capacity of the Rajiv Gandhi stadium, 6000. The passion among Aizawl supporters is so high that they occupy a stand which is still under construction apart from the die-hard fans who watch on from nearby cliffs.

Disconnect with the ISL and its regional representative

On Meghalaya Day, Royal Wahingdoh women get ready to face Meghalaya day
On Meghalaya Day, Royal Wahingdoh women get ready to face Meghalaya day

The Northeast is without a doubt, one of the Meccas of Indian football as it provides 25-30% of the Indian team’s players. There is not a single club in the top tier either which does not have a player from the region. AIFF’s reluctance to market the game in the Northeast is thus baffling.

The head of one of the state associations, on the condition of strict anonymity told Scroll, “Over here, no one supports or recognises NorthEast United. There are only five Indian players, some of whom may not even be from the region. Why would we support such a club over our own teams?”

When the Indian Super League started, Shillong Lajong’s Larsing Ming Sawyan and John Abraham had come together to buy a stake in NorthEast United. The partnership only lasted a season as the two factions had a breakdown in relations. An official, who was with NorthEast at the time said, “It was a club in Guwahati, led by people from Mumbai. They clearly didn’t respect our understanding of the game and the region.”

Fans from both Shillong and Aizawl also felt the same way. James Lalhmingthanga, a resident of Aizawl spoke of the disconnect, “We have grown up watching these clubs. You cannot just turn up one day and say that we are not going to play the top league.”

Some basic research would also tell the Indian footballing federation that Shillong had been the football capital of the Northeast for a long time. Although Guwahati has witnessed good crowds, to say that one club would suffice for the region would be akin to saying that Bengaluru FC represent the entire southern region or that Minerva Punjab should be renamed North United.

While the entire domestic game is plagued by the apathy of administrators, the federation have missed a clear trick by not promoting football in the region or trying to promote football tourism in some of the most scenic grounds that you will ever see in the country. Some parts of the nation may still need convincing to watch football, but in this case, the ignorance of the men at the top is killing an established base of the game.

Does anybody care?

Under-12 children getting trained at Madan Heh, Shillong under a DSO initiative
Under-12 children getting trained at Madan Heh, Shillong under a DSO initiative

Local administrators are not blameless either. Mizoram, with the aid of FIFA funding and eager administrators, is fast becoming the hub of talent in the Northeast displacing Meghalaya and Shillong.

While the Mizo Premier League is telecast on the local channel Zo Net increasing its reach, the Shillong Premier League has fallen into a rut with dwindling attendances ever since the exits of Royal Wahingdoh and Rangjadied United from the I-League. Add Lansning FC, once regulars in the second division to this list and one thing that all these clubs will tell you is the lack of a roadmap at the very top of the game.

The SPL had seen average attendances of 500-1000, down from the heady heights of 15,000 that the Lajong-Wahingdoh derby once used to attract. Thangboi Singto, Lajong’s coach and a native of Manipur but in Meghalaya since he was six, insisted on changing with the times, “We have to compete with the likes of the Premier League on television. Maybe the games are just not that exciting anymore. We have to play better perhaps.”

Financially as well, there seems to be no reward in sight. Take the case of Mawrynkenneng FC, who won the SPL’s third division this year and a sum of Rs 1 lakh, but spent eight times that amount over the whole year. If the champions of these community-run clubs have a hard time, what chance do the other clubs have?

Away from the humdrum of the busy cities, the children of the Northeast are indeed luckier to have more grounds than their urban counterparts. As Nicholas Jyrwa, general manager of Wahingdoh says, “We prefer to play our football outdoors rather than inside our rooms with our hands [sly dig at the console generation there]. You can always find a good game here and join in.”

The little technicians of India aren’t extinct, but are well on their way to becoming an endangered species but no one seems to be listening. Apathy from the top to the bottom threatens a slow-down in what is more than merely a hobby sport, but a community-driven initiative. After all, footballers of the future learn best from watching good football first hand.