Football is a romantic sport. Often, there are so many emotions attached to it and that is why many say football is more than just a game. For Ukhrul and Kamjong Districts (erstwhile only Ukhrul District), the story of the beautiful game goes a long long way back.
Over a century ago, amid the backdrop of World War I, a football team comprised mostly of players from Ukhrul and Kamjong, led by Reichumhao Rungsung under the 66th Unit of the 20th Manipur Labour Corps Company played in a football tournament 9816 km away from home. With the Allied forces witnessing early victory in the latter part of 1917, the Labour Corps deployed in France were afforded holidays on Sundays. There and then, leaving aside the pangs and the cries of the war; the labourers took to the field at Blargies in France and played the beautiful game like possessed men.
That was it, 90 minutes of escape from the harsh reality of their lives; 90 minutes of respite from the ever haunting thought of whether they would ever see their homes and their families again. For the men whose work mainly entailed collecting damaged or exhausted guns, non-functional or working ammunition, rocket shells (lid), bullets, bombshells, soldier boots and rubber boots (Pamkhuila Shaiza for dailyo.in) in war zones, football brought more than just entertainment; it kept them going, 90 minutes at a time.
A lot has changed in Ukhrul and Kamjong since a football was first kicked at Mission Compound, Ukhrul, in the early 20th century. Many players from these two districts have also gone on to write their names in the history books of Indian football. The first so-called superstar from the region was Somatai Shaiza, the diminutive winger with a bag full of tricks that lit up the flanks for both Churchill Brothers and East Bengal. Then came Reisangmi Vashum who followed the path of Shaiza, playing for both Churchill Brothers and East Bengal among a host of other clubs, as well as donning the Indian jersey multiple times. Today, Wungngayam Muirang (Bengaluru FC), Hormipam Ruivah (Kerala Blasters), and Chanso Horam (Mumbai City FC) go as ambassadors of the two districts in the ISL while a host of other players also ply their trades in the I-League.
What has remained the same in the last hundred years is the sports infrastructure and the facilities in the region. While Manipur is often regarded as the powerhouse of Indian football, much of the hill districts still struggle to get basic sports infrastructure and facilities. At the same time, no matter how much the populace loves football, the game has never really been looked upon as a serious profession. Professions outside of academics have always been frowned upon by parents and owing to this, the potential of the region in football has never been fully realised. As such, the usual path to a football career for players of the region has always been one with a little bit of talent, little to no proper coaching, but a mountain of perseverance and hard work. The ones to have made it out from these small districts with a population of no more than two lakhs have always been diamonds in the rough.
However, thanks to the players who have shown football in a different light, the attitude of the populace towards football has been undergoing slow changes. A wind of change has been blowing through these two districts in the past few years as the region looks to build from the basics.
A handful of youngsters and ex-footballers have brought changes in the landscape of football by introducing grassroots football programmes and academies in the region. Reisangpemmi Kasomwoshi, the youngest player to score in the now discontinued Federation Cup is one of the many youngsters leading the change for football in Ukhrul District. Along with fellow ex-footballer Yarmipei Shangh, Kasomwoshi co-founded Ukhrul Basic Soccer Foundation in 2018 to provide young kids under the age of 12 with all the conditions and facilities necessary to hone their footballing basics and their general discipline.
“Many players from our place fail to realise their potential because they aren’t taught the basics of football when they were young. I remember when I was young and no one taught me how to kick, control or pass the ball. I sorely wish there had been someone. I say this because when I started playing professional, I really struggled. I’ll be honest and say that I was still learning the basics of football in my first few years as a professional.”Reisangpemmi Kasomwoshi
Ukhrul Basic Soccer Foundation (UBSF) is one of the many academies that have sprung up in the two districts over the past few years. A few among the many academies that have also been working exemplarily are Ukhrul FC, Ukhrul United FC, Loree Kaju Transformational Organisation (LKTO), and Yarkhok United FC. Both Ukhrul FC and Ukhrul United FC have been beneficiaries of the Tata Trusts football initiative while Ukhrul FC also runs their Ukhrul FC Academy side by side. In Kamjong District, a local NGO, Recognise Rise and Empower Association has been training U-13 and U-15 players with three sessions every week. The players under this initiative participated in two senior-level tournaments recently.
While grassroots programs have always been organised in the region from time to time, the establishment of academies with regular training and up-to-date coaching has been the biggest change. On top of this, kids from these academies have also been given the platform to perform and showcase their talents in various age-level tournaments (U-10, U-12). Since 2019, UBSF and Ukhrul FC have organised four baby league tournaments in the district. UBSF also became the first organisation/academy to organise an annual month-long league for high school girls with the aim to promote football among girls. In 2019, the two finalists of the UBSF Girl’s League tournament represented Ukhrul and Kamjong Districts at the State Level Subroto tournament. A handful of the kids from these academies have gone on to sign for some of the best football academies in India such as Bengaluru Aspire Academy, Reliance Foundation Young Champs and Minerva Football Academy.
2019 was also a historic year for football in the region as Yarkhok United FC became the first club from Ukhrul and Kamjong districts to qualify for the Manipur State League. In the consequent seasons that have followed, Yarkhok has established itself as a mid-table team in the State league while fielding a relatively young team of local talents. This has ultimately helped the local talent pool to make their step up to state-level football with their local team while some have gone on to sign for bigger clubs after playing for the club, viz. Chanso Horam and Khanngam Horam who both went on to sign for NEROCA FC in 2019.
Former I-League Champion Reisangmi Vashum remembers how he struggled to convince his father when he first started out. “Will football feed you was the biggest question my dad always asked me when I started out,” he says.
However, in an illustrious 12-year career that saw him play for some of the biggest clubs in India, he managed not only to change his father’s mind but also the general outlook of his community on the game. Today, as the technical director of Ukhrul FC, he is one of the biggest ambassadors for the sport in his community:
“Engaging children in sporting activities are known to have a significant impact not just on their academics but also on their overall growth and development. It is wonderful that our parents have started accepting this and are sending their kids to the academies.”
Having retired from professional football, Vashum in line with Kasomwoshi and many others set his sight on building a strong residential academy to groom the local youngsters for the top level.
“For me, it’s always been about giving back to the sports that gave me so much and also to my people who helped me become the footballer I was.”
With the many football academies instilling the basics of football and inculcating a sense of discipline to kids at such a young age, there is a promise for a dawn of a new and better crop of both footballers and students from the region. Ukhrul and Kamjong are slowly rebuilding their football engines, this time, with a better appreciation and understanding of how the system works.
While every game Ruichumhao and co. played at Blargies in France brought them 90 minutes closer to home, kids from Ukhrul and Kamjong, under the mentorship of inspiring figures, will hope that every kick of the ball in the muddy and dusty pitches of the region will take them one step closer to the greener pitches at the top.
Baby steps, slowly but surely.
By Worngachan Shatsang (Twitter)
This article was originally published as part of the eighth edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/