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At Home in the New Normal: How Footballers are Forged in Bubbles

Sudeva Delhi FC’s Lalliansanga Renthlei and Manvir Singh, cocooned in the I-League biosecure bubble in Kolkata, talk about a young footballer’s life which, invariably, is about getting used to life in academies and development squads, and their bubbles.
Lalliansanga Renthlei of Sudeva Delhi FC

Lalliansanga Renthlei, who was part of the AIFF Elite Academy and the Indian Arrows set up, joined Sudeva Delhi FC for this season of the I-League (Pics: Vaibhav Raghunandan).

“It is tough when you are young,” Lalliansanga Renthlei says, leaning back on his bed. “It is tough to stay centred when there is so much going right for you.” Outside this room there is nothing to do but play football, the biosecure bubble designed to keep and break focus in equal measure.

Renthlei was signed by Chennaiyin B straight out of the AIFF Elite Academy in 2019, and he admits the money, the attention, being surrounded by so much talent but not getting game time turned him away from football itself. 

Click | Newsclick’s Full I-League Coverage

“I will admit my attitude towards training wasn’t the best anyway. That quick jump, from being in a campus, surrounded by players my age, with restrictions of movement, and then suddenly, all that freedom….” he shakes his head.

Safe to say it didn’t really work out for him at Chennaiyin, and within months he was off on loan to Indian Arrows, the AIFF’s development team, in the I-League. Almost immediately things changed. 

“I used to be very short tempered. But I became a bit more spiritual, started praying. Being in the Arrows set up again gave me a bit of discipline. Venky (Indian Arrows coach Shanmugam Venkatesh) is a tough taskmaster that way. He expects you to behave a certain way on and off the pitch. Plus, it was more like a combined unit all the time. It wasn’t like a normal club right. You stayed together, played together...”.

This, being locked in together, is a concept a lot of players are grappling with in the biosecure bubble right now. Renthlei, who plays for Sudeva Delhi FC, is conditioned to it thanks to his time at Arrows. Additionally, before landing in Kolkata, the group spent over three months in the club’s residential campus in the capital. But still, it doesn’t feel all natural.

Sudeva FC striker Manvir Singh

“I have been in lockdown for two years now,” laughs Manvir Singh. The 19-year-old is another Sudeva player who has played for Arrows, and was part of the India U-19 team for the 2019 SAFF Championships. Prior to that he was at Ozone FC when they made their only serious push to get promoted to the I-League. 

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When Manvir went home to Nawanshahr earlier this year, after being released by Arrows as well as from national duty, it was the longest he’d spent at home in almost a decade. “Most people don’t recognise me at home,” he said. “When I was there this time, I’d often have to tell people whose son or whose brother I am, and invariably they would all say, ‘pur tum bahar nahi khelte?’”

After all those years of playing for different clubs, being in different states of lockdown, Manvir has found a new home, in another lockdown. And as exasperated as he is, at the very least there is some relief that there will be regular football at the end of it. “I’ll be honest. One of the main reasons I chose to join this new club was that they decided to play an all Indian squad. That means I could get more game time than usual. As a striker, that is important”. 

All of this makes today’s midweek I-League fixture all the more exciting. Sudeva take on Arrows, and Renthlei and Manvir have a chance to go up against their past, and judge for themselves how far they have come. 

In a pre-match press conference, the Arrows winger, Gurkirat Singh was asked the obvious question about facing former teammates and played it with a straight face, saying he will look forward to going up against friends. Mutual respect was insinuated.

Also Read | Indian Arrows, Sudeva Delhi FC Offer Glimpse Into Future

Renthlei and Manvir’s analysis of playing Arrows is more direct. “We need to put in more crosses. If you saw the Churchill game you know they are weaker aerially,” Renthlei says.

“You cannot let them press you into disarray,” says Manvir. “They will do that, They will run, then run more and run some more. But we have to stay calm, rotate the ball, keep it moving. Get them tired”.

“It is tough when you are young,” Renthlei says again, quite melodramatically, before breaking out into laughter. “When you are being passed around, you don’t have experience, the ball looks distant. Your gameplan can fall apart”.

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