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I-League 2021: Aizawl, TRAU and Neroca, the Beacons from North East

Jaydeep Basu |
All three teams from the North East in the I-League — Aizawl FC, TRAU and Neroca — have squads brimming with young local talent. However, they start on the back foot since lack of local tournaments and leagues in their area of operation because of the pandemic have forced them to enter the fray underprepared unlike previous seasons.
I-League 2021 Countdown: Aizawl FC, TRAU FC and Neroca FC

I-League 2021 Countdown: Aizawl FC, TRAU FC and Neroca FC.

When did one hear for the last time a feature film being planned on one single triumph in Indian domestic football? Or a book being written on it? Aizawl FC have no corporate backing. They never had. Yet, the Mizoram club has achieved something that is enough to leave many clubs with deep pockets green with envy.

To describe Aizawl FC’s victory in the 2016-17 I-League as “historic” or a “fairytale” achievement would be a gross understatement. It could have easily been the turning point of Indian football in the new century, something like Mohun Bagan Athletic Club’s victory in the 1911 IFA Shield. 

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To put it bluntly, that it wasn’t given its due; that a plot was hatched to make it look ordinary and bring down the entire process of Indian football was part of a larger game plan. No team with so little resources should in future be able to make a mark like Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab or Chennai City FC did. Indian club football has been moved upside down to take the wind out of their sails. 

The plan has succeeded. Certainly. The champions went to the second division. Minerva Punjab was sold, Chennai struggled to survive. Aizawl FC are still there, but they are not the same side they were four seasons ago. In 2020-21, they are one of the participating teams, but they can’t really be tagged as title contenders.

But then, Aizawl FC have done something unique, something no city-based franchise could boast of. The financial constraints could be a reason, but the Stanley Rozario side is packed with local footballers. Apart from their usual quota of foreigners, Aizawl would be heavily dependent on footballers from their own state. It would be interesting to know if a few of them can make an impact in the end.

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Among the foreigners, Liberian Alfred Jaryan is almost like a home boy, a part and parcel of Aizawl FC for the past five seasons. After spending a few seasons in Kolkata and Mumbai, the midfielder settled in Aizawl in 2015 and was part of the squad who won the title. Having played more than 80 matches for the Mizoram club, he could be expected to take the lead in the middle. 

For central defender Richard Kasaga from Uganda, it would be his second season. Nigerian striker Princewill Emeka is one of those “India veteran” foreigners, who has been playing mostly in the north east from 2014. He is definitely not expected to move earth, but his experience could be of crucial use in the current scenario.

All three teams from the North East — Aizawl FC, TRAU and Neroca — have one problem in common. The lack of local tournaments in their area of operation this season because of the pandemic could be their undoing. The strong local leagues in Mizoram and Manipur always offered them the perfect platform to gauge their strength before venturing into the I-League. They never had to shift base to Spain or Dubai for training. This one option would be badly missed by all the three clubs. 

Manipur’s TRAU FC enjoyed reasonable success last season when the threat of Coronavirus brought the league to a halt. Now they too are packed with local footballers though a few experienced outsiders have been added to strengthen the side. Footballers like Abhishek Das or Bidyasagar Singh have come from Bengal and have the experience of playing pressure games. There is Krishnananda Singh, Chanso Horam, and Seiminmang Manchong too, who have done well in the recent past.

Among TRAU’s foreign recruits, it would be interesting to watch the progress of Komron Tursunov. The Tajikistan striker was part of Mohun Bagan’s I-League squad last season with moderate success. Though he was no match to Joseba Betia or Baba Diawara, he had been a regular member of his national team for the last couple of years.

TRAU’s Brazilian central defender Helder Ribeiro is a towering figure at six feet three inches. At 32, he is like a true journeyman, who spent three seasons in the famous Sao Paulo club before turning to Asia. In west Asia, he had played for several clubs though without much success. He is new in TRAU, but didn’t get too many opportunities in Al-Shabbab, where he spent his last three years.

In contrast, Neroca FC of Manipur have at least one foreign recruit with a formidable reputation. Nathaniel Garcia, who shifted base from Gokulam FC to Neroca in the current season, has already made a name back in his native land Trinidad and Tobago. He was good enough to make the under-22 national team and then graduated to the senior side. In 2018, he donned the national colours five times. There is another Garcia in Neroca, his first name being Jude. The attacking midfielder also comes from Trinidad and Tobago.

Kolkata had been a happy hunting ground for Neroca’s Liberian central defender Varney Kallon. Last season he was with Peerless FC, who made history by winning the senior division league in the city (CFL). Apart from PK Banerjee’s Eastern Railway in 1958, no other team could pip the three Kolkata giants for the local league title since Independence.

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Footballers from the north east part of the country had been doing well at the national level for many years now. Starting from Kiran Khongsai and Gunabir Singh, players like Bhaichung Bhutia or Renedy Singh became household names in the 1990s. But they all had to leave their native states to ply the trade as the region hardly had any professional club capable of competing at the top level. Aizawl FC, TRAU FC or Neroca FC have managed to change that.

There were others too like Shillong Lajong, United Sikkim, Rangdajied United or Royal Wahingdoh, who made some impact for a brief period before running out of steam. Aizawl FC, TRAU or Neroca should be credited for trying to stay afloat despite discouraging changes in the pattern of Indian domestic football. Thanks to them, a host of local boys from the north east could be present in Kolkata to showcase their talents in this pandemic time.

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