December 2019. Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, Aizawl.
Aizawl FC are ahead in the fourth minute in their I-League match against Punjab FC. Upon restart, a long ball from the midfield to the right finds the Punjab FC winger in space.
As he shapes up to cross the ball, an onrushing defender commits to a block. A cutback leaves the Aizawl defender for dead. He rushes into the box.
Four players converged around him – but it was too late. A left footed strike gave the Aizawl custodian little time to react. 1-1 within a minute.
Makan Winkle Chothe has just scored his first goal at senior level.
Chothe Big Man
Unless you have followed the I-League to any great extent, you simply won’t know who Makan Winkle Chothe is.
Having featured in 14 of the 16 matches of the 2019-20 I-League season for Punjab FC, the Manipuri lad’s performances turned heads.
Anyone familiar with sports in India, one would nod in agreement that sport has a major influence in their understanding of Manipur and its people. After all, the state in the north-eastern corner of the country has given India world champions in boxing and weightlifting.
Then there are the footballers. Manipur was the first of the northeastern states that sent its footballers into the Indian mainstream with the likes of Renedy Singh donning the national jersey. The trend continued with Gouramangi Singh and more recently, Udanta Singh. Of course, there is also the strong dominance by Manipuri women in women’s football with the brilliant Bala Devi at the helm.
While the names mentioned above hailed from the Imphal valley, deep into the hills of Chandel district in Manipur lies Purum Chumbang. Consisting of barely a hundred households, it is this village that has given root to Makan Chothe.
Hailing from a family of farmers, Makan’s decision to pursue the game of football instead of his studies was met with some resistance.
My family situation is not that good, they had doubts. If I don’t make it…(shrugs)
It was his uncle Khiang Athem Chothe who took him in and managed to get a trial at Kanchenjunga FC in Siliguri. The club promptly signed the 15-year-old.
After a few months in the semi-pro league in Siliguri, Makan’s uncle stumbled upon an announcement of a trial on Facebook of all places. The trail was at the erstwhile Minerva Punjab FC.
After a few discussions with the club representatives and his family, the kid from Chandel district travelled north to Punjab.
The Wisdom of Minerva
A move to Punjab was a massive gamble and a whole new experience for a young boy from Chandel district. Unlike his peers, the schoolboy has not had any formal training.
Recounting his experience from the trials:
It had been a bit hard. I had never played under a coach, while the others had come with their top youth coach, with some strategy. Me? I loved the game, so I just played.
The gamble did pay off as he was signed after a successful trial. For Minerva Punjab, it appeared that they have unearthed a gem. Makan led them to the top of the youth football pyramid as Minerva Punjab FC won the Hero Elite League title in 2018-19.
He saved his best for the final stages of the tournament. In the quarterfinals he scored in a 1-1 draw against Mohun Bagan as his team won on penalties. In the semi-finals against FC Goa, he scored the only goal of the match. Then the opening goal in the final helped them beat FC Pune City 2-0.
Boys to Men
The display earned him a place in the senior side. The big leap to play for the first team amongst professionals played on the mind of the young lad. Minerva Punjab were the reigning I-League champions at the start of the 2018-19 campaign and a place in the squad was hard to find.
When I played with the seniors, I was a bit nervous. What will they think if I miss a pass? This was the problem with me. The coach would tell me to do this and if I didn’t do it, my biggest worry was not getting playtime.
He gained valuable experience as a substitute and an occasional start in the I-League and the AFC Cup. And it was the senior players that helped the Makan settle in the team.
Playing with Chencho (Gyeltshen), Kassim (Aidara), (William) Opoku. I did what they told me to do in the game. I started my (senior) career with some small tips from them and the coaches.
Looking back, Makan is thankful for all the people he had worked with. “I am lucky to have met them,” he said.
After the club battled relegation in 2018-19 I-League, there were a host of changes before the commencement of the new season: Minerva Punjab FC was rebranded as Punjab FC. New signings had come in, Chencho and Opoku had left the club.
Amidst the changes, the youth player grabbed his opportunity. Regular starts, eye catching displays, and a couple of goals. It wasn’t long before FC Goa came knocking in July 2020.
Having signed with the league winners, Makan has had to train harder, longer and adjust to the new surroundings.
The first day it was, what to say (laughs) awkward. The next day we started talking, having lunch together, communicating. Now it’s been very good.
I also speak with the Goan players like Seri bhai (Seriton), Lenny bhai (Lenny Rodrigues).
We (feel) free to talk now!
Makan has his feet firmly planted on the ground, he knows he has to wait his turn again.
It’s not that easy that I will go straight into the (playing) XI because there are many good players and I will need to fight for my place.
Let’s see, they have a lot of new players. But, I think I can do it.
He’d like to model his game after his idols, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. on the field and on a gaming console when he plays FIFA, the video game.
The question is, will he play as himself on FIFA? “Obviously, anyone will play as himself,” he laughed.
He also looks up to the Indian national team captain, Sunil Chettri as “He has done a lot for our country and I think he is every Indian youngster’s idol.”
On his ambitions to play for India, he felt that, “Every Indian player would want to play for the national team and it’s my dream to wear the blue jersey.”
The beaches of Goa are a far cry from the hills of Manipur. He does miss being away from home, hanging out with his friends and his family.
He also said that he gets mildly annoyed with his doting parents when they give him the same advice everyday: “Eat well, sleep well.” A reminder that he is only 20 years old. Then there is the fact: within five years, the schoolboy with no formal training finds himself among the top teams in the country.
Whether he gets adequate game time in the Indian Super League or not, what is guaranteed is that Makan will excite those around him. The audience at the FC Goa training ground already know what he is capable of.
Is he the finished article? We’ll find out soon enough.