The soccer mania has gripped the football-crazy north-eastern region. The eight States of the region, including Sikkim, are the powerhouse of Indian football, and understandably football occupies the core of the hearts of the people here. Every time the World Cup is played we lament that India, being a nation of 121 crore people, is not able to cobble up a team of 11 players potent enough to qualify for the biggest sports carnival of the world. However, for Indian football things are looking up, and it is mainly driven by the talented players from the region. It could be now safely said that Indian football has come out of the shadow of the club football of Bengal and has become a pan-Indian sport in true sense of the term. Recent performances of the Indian team are examples to that players like Sunil Chettri, Holiram Narzaray, Jeje all are contributors to the new-found energy of Indian football. India’s FIFA ranking has improved and the team has made its place among the top 100 teams of the world. India finished the year ranked 96th in the Fifa rankings and scripted a history – the first time they broke into the top-100 in 21 years. Though the road is still far yet a beginning has been made, and it is heartening to note that Indian football has come out of its lacklustre past when football was only concentrated in a few pockets of the country. By organizing FIFA under-17 World Cup, India has given a signal to the world that it is no longer a sleeping giant. The FIFA is also playing a positive role in promoting football in the country.
Indian football, for the first time, also has made it to the front pages of newspapers this year. The U-17 World Cup played at home for the first time meant everyone was talking about the beautiful game. For a change, it was not about the exploits of European powerhouses who invade our television sets every weekend. Here was a group of 17-year-olds, or even less, who made everyone sit up and take notice. Tucked in far north-eastern corner of the country, Mizoram state, which witnessed bouts of insurgency, is fast becoming the football factory of India. Many players from the State are playing in premier leagues in India, and to top it all, the State hosts its own Mizoram Premier League which has become hugely popular and churned out players for national level with alarming regularity. Not only Mizoram, players from Meghalaya, Assam and Manipur are playing in nearly all the top clubs of India. This fact speaks volumes of the quality of the players who the region is producing. The need of the hour now is that the nation needs to get behind the football team. Even our excitement for the FIFA World Cup knows no bounds, but it pains to see empty stands in our own country when the Indian football team takes on international teams on home turf. Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri recently took to social media to make a passionate plea urging fans to look closer to home and support Indian football. He said in a message “To all of you who have lost hope or do not have any hope in Indian football, I request you to come and watch us in the stadium. It is not fun to criticise and abuse on the internet. Come to the stadium. Do it on our face. Scream at us, shout at us and abuse us. Who knows, one day we might change you guys”. And Chhetri is right. The scenario of Indian football is changing and from cricket-crazy nation fans need to shift to their loyalties to support the cause of the biggest game on the earth. At the world football stage, India is still considered as minnows but the recent developments at the domestic football scene has encouraged many that given a proper ecosystem football could well become the centre piece of Indian sports. Till the time it happens, the sports body, All India Football Federation (AIFF), needs to constantly press the button to take football to the next stage. Without breaking much sweat, India qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup, and a good performance by the team will go a long way in shaping the future of soccer in India.