Vision India accelerates Manipur footballer success

Travel-weary Vision Asia director, Brendan Menton, brightened up when asked about the Vision India's Manipur project by Rajeeb Mukherjee of the Hindustan Times. Showing photographs of football in Manipur on his laptop, the former Ireland Football Association Secretary said he would rate it among the best Vision Asia projects. “It would have been in the top three, with the first two being in China but two projects in Iran too are doing very well,” he told the nespaper at the Asian Football Confederation’s office in Kuala Lumpur. The AFC is so happy with Manipur’s success that president Mohamed bin Hammam sent a special invitation to the All Manipur Football Association to attend the opening of the Asian Cup in Bangkok last month. AMFA President Santosh Kumar, Vice-Presidents R K Nimai and Birendra Singh and General Secretary L Ranjit Roy spent 40 minutes with the AFC chief and AFC sources said Manipur could receive $35,000 as grant for this season.

"So what makes Manipur special? What makes 170 players ply their trade as footballers from their state alone elsewhere in India? What makes them have at least seven players in the national women’s squad for the past decade?" asked Mukherjee. He gave as an example the result of Manipur losing the semi-final of the 2005 Santosh Trophy to Goa. A refereeing blunder allowed Goa to level scores with a minute left on the clock. Goa went on to lift the trophy but Manipur came to a standstill when a bandh was called, perhaps the only time for sport. It needed the All India Football Federation President Priyaranjan Dasmunshi’s intervention to calm things down. “It is like a tribal culture that binds us to the team, be it the state side or clubs. One can compare this to the fierce loyalty the Catalans feel towards Barcelona,” said Nimai, Secretary to the Governor of Manipur and the owner of Eastern Sporting Club. His is one of the 12 clubs that took part in the inaugural state league which kicked off on 3 November last year.

It had its share of problems but was still successful. “The league was supposed to be over by February but we could finish it only in April. This had nothing to do with our deficiencies but rather political problems. Strikes are very frequent here and can go on for days,” said L Ranjit Roy, General Secretary of AMFA. “It was supposed to be a fully professional league but clubs here have a meagre income and can’t afford to pay so much to the players. The highest-rated player here earns around Rs 50,000 a season which isn’t much compared to those playing in other states. Jobs, therefore, are necessary to supplement earnings from football ... We can’t even give cash awards to the winners,” Roy said. Clubs have a meagre budget of Rs 10-12 lakh. Fifty percent goes into maintaining the teams and the rest is spent on infrastructure and youth development. In the absence of corporate sponsorships, clubs are run either by public donations or organising tambolas. “Since the clubs are dependent on public money, we can’t sell tickets. They would feel rather annoyed having to pay again to watch matches,” Nimai added. And with more and more clubs outside the state relying on players from Manipur, the AMFA is now looking for transfer fees from big clubs.

But the AMFA’s real success lies in implementing the Vision program in schools. In its inaugural year, AMFA selected four districts — Churchandpur, Bishnupur, Thoubal and Kakching — for the school project. Each district had eight schools with U-11boys and girls being trained. “It was difficult initially to make the schools see the point, but after they agreed, things became easy. This year we intend to increase the number of students to 2000 from 600,” said Roy. The boys will get trained in schools till 13 and then be picked up by the local clubs where they will undergo further training till 18. Senior division clubs will then pick them up. “What we are trying to do under the project is help students learn the basics,” said Nimai. AMFA also has a well-structured league. “Starting with the U-13 festival for boys and girls (from this year), we have the U-16 and U-19 leagues for boys and an U-17 tournament for girls. Besides, we also have an inter-district league for boys and girls,” said Roy.