Sports lovers in this part of the country had never had it so good, with Guwahati getting to host a part of FIFA U-17 World Cup football as well as a T20 intertiol cricket match. There is a palpable sense of sporting history being written as the FIFA Junior World Cup kicks off in India for the first time. India is with the minnows in world football hierarchy, but is seen as a ‘sleeping giant’ by FIFA. When India was awarded the U-17 World Cup hosting rights in December 2013, FIFA made no secret of its determition to break new ground in a rising country which now has 125 crore people. Of the six host cities, Guwahati has been allotted 9 games at the showpiece Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Sarusajai — six games in the group E round robin stage and one game each in pre-quarter, quarter and semi-fil stages. The four group E teams France, Japan, Honduras and New Caledonia have gotten to train exclusively at the grounds in Maligaon, Tepesia, Nehru Stadium and SAI Regiol Centre in Guwahati. The renovation of the multipurpose stadium at Sarusajai will stand it in good stead as Guwahati gets to host other major sports events, with South Asian Boxing Championship coming up this year itself in December. Thanks to the Indian Super League, Sarusajai stadium is the home ground of North East United FC club, and has hosted the India-Nepal match for the last World Cup. These fixtures have ensured that this sports complex has remained in prime condition, while the training grounds had earlier received makeovers during the SAF Games held in the city last year, and a decade back for the tiol Games in 2007. As for the upcoming second T20 match between India and Australia at Barsapara Cricket Stadium, fans are expecting Kohli’s merry men to clinch the 3-match series here after the win at Ranchi courtesy Duckworth-Lewis method in a rain-curtailed match. The stadium at Barsapara took ages in coming up, Rs 200 crore has been invested in it, there is still some exterior work remaining, and the Sarbanda Sonowal-led State government had to step in by arranging a bank loan for Assam Cricket Association (ACA) to facilitate holding the T20 fixture. The ACA is emerging from a long, dark chapter of fincial irregularities at a time when tiol cricket board BCCI itself is reluctantly beginning to undergo painful reforms. Still, Guwahati is hosting an intertiol cricket match after seven years. Depending on how it is organised and the pitch behaves, Barsapara stadium can be positioned for future matches including IPL fixtures.
With these sports complexes getting upgraded into tiol and intertiol venues, the question now arises whether the benefits will be spread evenly and allowed to percolate down. In Guwahati itself, the sports complex at Nehru Stadium is getting increasingly cramped for space and coaches of several disciplines bemoan lack of latest equipment. Md. Tayabullah hockey stadium at Bhetapara and smaller complexes like the tennis complex at Chachal and Rudra Singha sports complex at Dispur too need attention from sports administrators. With space inside Guwahati metro area gobbled up fast, this is the time for city planners not to repeat the mistake of making little provision for sporting grounds. For training players at intermediate levels and honing budding talents, such grounds will have to come up in newly opened areas, if Guwahati is to be built up as a sports capital. This also requires active linkages with district sports centres, and regular tourments from grassroots level upwards across Assam. If we fail to find players at junior school level and nurture them well, what use all this sporting infrastructure? Tourments, whether tiol or intertiol, will come and go. The sports complexes that the State is beginning to take pride in will turn sterile, condemned to remain showpieces waiting for the next lick of paint whenever an event is awarded. It will do well to remember that the under-17 Indian football team that is now scripting history by competing for the first time in a FIFA tourment, has as many as 8 players from Manipur, and one each from Mizoram and Sikkim. Manipur has been a sporting powerhouse for long, but we need to follow how their sporting fraternity is aspiring for a better system and infrastructure, including a sports university. Mizoram too is eager that the passion for football among its populace — so rousingly on display when Aizawl FC won the I-league crown last season — rubs off on other sporting disciplines. Meghalaya is poised to take a big leap, having been allotted the 2022 tiol Games, which will surely help the State build upon the base so well laid with Shillong successfully co-hosting the SAF Games last year with Guwahati. The entire NE region with its raw talent and enthusiasm for sports is waiting to be developed, provided the Centre really implements a well-thought out sports policy and the States respond with zeal.