NEW DELHI, March 16 (IANS): Mizoram winning the national football championship for the Santosh Trophy underscores the phenomenal growth of the sport in the northeastern states. The region is fast becoming the new nursery of Indian football.
For long, Kolkata and Goa were the powerhouses of Indian football, but in the last decade or so, the northeastern states Manipur and Mizoram have emerged in a similar role.
In Mizoram and Manipur, football is a way of life thanks to the unstinted support from the community and the government. From a pastime the sport is now a lucrative career option for youngsters.
Mizoram this week became the second northeastern side after Manipur to win the national championship in its 68-year history. Manipur's success came in 2002-03.
The man behind Mizoram's success is journalist-turned-sports administrator Lalnghinglova Hmar, the state association's secretary.
Hmar credits the Santosh Trophy success to the formation of the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) in 2012.
"The highly competitive league has paved the way for our team's national success. The league is played by eight teams at a single venue in Aizwal and all the matches are telecast live by a local channel. The exposure that young players are getting thanks to the league was the main reason behind Mizoram's success," Hamar told IANS.
Hmar said Mizoram must sustain the good work that fetched it the Santosh Trophy.
"In all these 68 years, Mizoram is only the second north-eastern state after Manipur to lift the trophy. Manipur's lone success came more than a decade ago. So for Mizoram the key will be to sustain the success over a period of time," he said.
Ask FIFA's regional director Shaji Prabhakaran, the man who oversaw the implementation of the successful Vision Manipur, one of the first pilot programme of the Asia Football Confederation (AFC) in the country, he will say Mizoram's triumph is a success for the programme.
"The rise of northeastern football started with Vision Manipur in 2005. It was highly successful as they were able to put together a strong purposeful league. Now Mizoram will inspire more and more smaller states," Prabhakaran, who was the Vision India director when Vision Manipur was implemented, told IANS.
Prabhakaran said Mizoram's success story without much support from other stakeholders should inspire other states as well.
"Mizoram's rise in Indian football has been phenomenal. They didn't get much support and the MFA should be lauded for getting the job done at the grass roots. They have a strong grass roots programme and now they are reaping rich dividends," said Prabhakaran.
Hmar, however, said that the Mizoram government has helped the game by providing infrastructure.
"The government has helped us in developing the infrastructure. Today we have three astro-turf, two in Aizwal and one at Lunglei. The fourth one is coming up at Champhai. Better infrastructure will expose the game to more youngsters," said Hmar.
The likes of Lalrindika Ralte and Jeje Lalpekula from Mizoram are established players in the national team.
Jeje, who currently plays for I-League giants Dempo, hopes that players from Mizoram will dominate the national scene for a few more years.
"Mizoram's rise in national football is great. There was a time when some 85 players were playing in the I-League. I hope the number will go up and in the next five years players from Mizoram will dominate the national scene," he said.