The importance of Santosh Trophy diminished to some extent after the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to bar the I-league players from playing the national championship. However, on Sunday evening, watching the Santosh Trophy final on television turned out to be a delightful experience. Mizoram’s maiden triumph was a historic occasion, not only for the northeastern state, but for Indian football, too.
I had been urging the AIFF for long to involve the northeastern states in the mainstream of Indian football in a greater manner. The very fact that India’s first Olympic captain in 1948, Dr Talimaran Ao, came from Nagaland speaks volumes of football’s deep-rooted popularity in that region.
Several talented footballers from northeastern states trained under me when I was the director of the Tata Football Academy. During my time, Manipur players dominated the bunch. Mizoram have certainly improved in leaps and bounds since. For the Santosh Trophy in Siliguri, the team trained together for three months and were richly rewarded for their efforts.
Mizoram coach H. Vanlalthangla has definitely done a great job, but their maiden triumph in Santosh Trophy is actually the result of long-term planning and hard work. Though not exactly a very rich state in terms of resources, Mizoram have had three good artificial turfs in the past few years. While two of them are in Aizawl, they have one more such turf in a neighbouring township.
What is most important is that all these facilities were raised through local efforts. They did not wait for financial assistance from Fifa or the national federation. This could be an eye-opener for many other smaller state associations, who constantly complain about lack of funds.
The introduction of the Mizoram Premier League is one more thing that played a big role behind their success. While well established local leagues in Calcutta and Goa are getting neglected because of the I-League, the Mizoram league has turned out to be a thriving force. They have a couple of sponsors also, of which one is a local TV channel that takes care of the league’s live coverage. I am told most of the matches in the Mizoram Premier League are played under floodlights.
Currently, two footballers from Mizoram — Jeje Lalpekhlua and Lalrindika Ralte — have made a name for themselves at the national level. The duo, I believe, have become a role model for the next generation of players from the state. The goal-scoring ability of Zico Zoremsanga only reminded me of Jeje when the youngster first came into prominence for Indian Arrows.
I sincerely hope the AIFF takes note of Mizoram’s success and does their bit to take it forward. In the past, the northeastern teams had always done better at the junior levels. This year, too, the northeastern teams bagged titles in most of the major junior tournaments, including the national championships, Subroto Cup and the Manchester United tournament. But they rarely could translate their supremacy at the senior level. Now that things have improved, special care should be taken to take advantage of this.
In fact, it would not be a bad idea to grant a few special berths in the I-league to the clubs from states like Mizoram. Apart from showcasing their talent, these clubs would also help in making the pool of players bigger. Ultimately, it would help the national team. I always found the footballers from northeastern states naturally athletic. Their bodies have better centre of gravity and tougher muscles. All these things contribute immensely in making a footballer better.
Last but not the least, more importance should be given to Santosh Trophy. I am told the Mizoram state government has decided to celebrate the win in a big way. The inter-state competitions are always closer to the people’s hearts. It is time the AIFF realised this fact.