In the final minute of Tuesday’s game between NEROCA FC and Sudeva Delhi FC — a game that meant a lot to one team and not too much for another — a half cleared header in the SDFC box fell straight to Khaiminthang Lhungdim. The livewire 20-year-old, a menace since coming on, collected the loose ball, swirled and tried to cut in, hoping to get that space to launch a cross, a shot, anything to save their season. Abhishek Ambekar wasn’t having any of it. The former East Bengal left back has been a rock (the kind with roller skates strapped on and a nitro booster ready to go) in defence for SDFC this season. As Lhungdim cut in, Ambekar stuck out a leg, and nudged the ball away. The Manipuri boy went down and everyone in white went up in protest. The referee waved it off, and to add insult to injury blew for time seconds after.
The NEROCA boys swarmed the man in charge. Varney Kallon, a beloved of the club was screaming his lungs out, telling the referee to be ashamed of himself, asking him, pleading and screaming how he could do this to them. Gift Raikhan, the manager who brought them up to the I-League, was pulling players away, trying to calm things down. Emotions were obviously high. This wasn’t just a 1-0 loss. It meant more.
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It meant that it was all over. It was gone. The end of an era before the era had even begun. There is a Manipuri side at the top of the I-League, and there is one right at the bottom. Quite poignantly, everyone else is the filling in this eromba sandwich.
The I-League lost its eternal derby before the season began and now it would lose its latest, frantically supported one from the east. NEROCA needed a point to keep their chances of survival alive. Sudeva had beaten them. They were gone. Moments later, the Chennai City social media accounts tweeted sighs of relief — expressed via gifs and emojis.
Even in the Sudeva Delhi FC camp, despite the obvious joy — this is a team that has struggled for wins all season despite playing good football — the goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar cautioned everyone to keep the celebrations muted. “They have been relegated guys,” he said. “It’s not a good day.”
It really wasn’t. Not just for NEROCA, but for Indian football as a whole. There were 43 Manipuri players in the recently concluded season of the Indian Super League (ISL). There are 59 Manipuri players registered for the current season of the I-League. Every team bar Aizawl and Mohammedan have at least one Manipuri player in their ranks. TRAU and NEROCA account for 40. NEROCA’s relegation may not sound like such a big deal at first look. This was, after all, a small club that came up via promotion. But the key is this: they lost their title sponsor at the end of last season. Suffered big budget cuts before it began. And used a squad of young local players for it. And now they are gone. There is a strong chance this could be forever.
Which makes the case for young players in the state looking for a way to professional football just that much tougher. “Everyone knows that the federation is in a bad way,” a player said. “Whatever players came through from the state came via the clubs. We all came up the same way. NEROCA was a great way to get to the I-League and get some national eyeballs on you. TRAU was the same. Everything just got a bit tougher.”
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Tough is how the I-League goes. This is what relegation does. It is also why those big boys with their franchises don’t want to play the game this way. In 20 games of the season, Odisha accumulated 12 points in the ISL. They will be back next season, in their smart kits in front of empty stadiums. NEROCA have played 13, and have just one to go. They have eight. And they are getting the drop. The Khuman Lampak is packed for a football game no matter the occasion. In a season without fans they folded over. And the I-League lost a little more colour.
Professional football is about battling impermanence. Every point matters. Every game matters. Injury time penalty shouts matter. Possession guarantees nothing. Sponsorships, collaborations, partnerships, are transient. Ask Jonajit Thangjam, a D license coach who runs the NEYFC (North East Youth FC) a grassroots football club for kids, in Bengaluru. “The lack of money hurt NEROCA. They lost even before the season began. Now they’ve just lost what remained.”
- So Churchill Brothers lost. Again. They lost 0-3 to Gokulam last game week, their first loss of the campaign. And now they lost 1-4 to Mohammedan Sporting — a club intent on playing spoiler to everyone any chance it gets. Hira Mondal, Mohammedan’s marauding left back scored via a thunderbolt from distance, before Pedro Manzi applied the gloss on a fine Mohammedan performance. That’s two games Churchill have lost which Hamza Kheir has not been a part of. Everyone was looking at Churchill’s frontline for praise, when actually perhaps the real star was back in the heart of their defence.
- The big news isn’t that TRAU are top of the I-League. It is that Komron Tursanov, the scorer of the goal that took them there has now bid adieu to his teammates and departed for national duty with Tajikistan. Igor Stimac may not think I-League players deserve national call ups, but his Asian coaching counterparts don’t seem to think so. Tursanov is one of many Asian players who have been recalled by their federations for national duty. Bangladesh’s Jamal Bhuyan, Nepal’s Kiran Chemjong are also on their way out. The worst hit undoubtedly are TRAU, for whom Tursanov has been irreplaceable. Six goals and six assists in 13 games are stats that speak for themselves.
- Here’s a great stat: The Indian Arrows have now won two of three games they have played in Phase 2 of the I-League. They have got 10 points this season — one better than the season prior — but, most importantly look like they’ve improved game by game as the season has gone by. Consistency though is a matter of experience.
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