There’s been some wonderfully positive news for Meghalaya football teams of late – from the Subroto Cup, Santosh Trophy and Sub-Junior National Championship. Every football fan in the state will be hoping for further and greater success stories, including, of course, super fan Bhogtoram Mawroh

H Elias Higher Secondary School’s victory at the U-17 boys’ Subroto Cup and the senior and sub-junior teams reaching the final round in their respective tournaments, ie Santosh Trophy and Sub-Junior National Championship, is a continuation of the positive trend for Meghalaya football in recent years. While these achievements are praiseworthy, Meghalaya’s journey to become a football powerhouse is still a long and arduous one. Recent achievements notwithstanding there is a lot that remains to be done.

First let’s talk about H Elias’s achievement. Many of the players from the Subroto-winning team were part of the Shillong Lajong team that had won the U-18 Shillong Premier League 2019 without losing a single match. This is not to say that it was a smooth ride to the U-18 SPL title with teams like Langsning, Rangdajied United and Nangkiew Irat giving them good competition. The Subroto final against Bangladesh was, however, a different kettle of fish.

Their opponents were the defending champions and had five national players in their ranks. This experience and pedigree was very much evident when the team from Bangladesh looked the more threatening in the first half. Although H Elias were the ones who scored through Sangti Janai Shianglong, the team from Bangladesh had chances of their own to score. The second half was a completely different story with H Elias’s players displaying a tremendous amount of maturity. Except for one misjudgement by the goalkeeper the team from Meghalaya had complete control of the game. In fact they could have scored a lot more goals if the chances had been taken. Nevertheless a victory in the final of a major national championship is a good achievement. The question, however, is what happens now?

Most probably, the players will go back to their parent clubs and play club football while participating in some national tournaments like the U-18 Elite League. Apart from that there is not much national-level competition in which they can compete. Lajong are no longer in the I-League and, in my opinion, will not try to qualify for it at least until 2024. So that route is no longer available for players to showcase their ability on the national stage. This is a problem that many members of the Santosh Trophy team will face very soon. Players like Kenstar Kharshong, Phrangki Buam and Samuel Lyngdoh Kynshi are still with Lajong playing in the SPL. SLFC are at the top of the table and may win the SPL trophy come the end of the season. That, however, is not going to be enough to propel the careers of these young players. These players should be pushing for a place in the Indian junior national teams but unless they play at a stage where they will be noticed it is not going to happen.

Phrangki, especially, is a very frustrating case. He was a prolific scorer both in the U-15 and U-18 national leagues as well as the 2018-2019 I-League but has not got the move which he deserved (maybe he didn’t want to leave, which would be a mistake). In this SPL he is among the top scorers and scored the winning goal against Manipur in the Santosh Trophy decider as well. But will that get the attention of Indian Super League team scouts or the national team? I doubt it. For that to happen, he has to play in national tournaments like the ISL, I-League or Second Division League. Sooner or later, if Phrangki has ambitions to play at the top level he will have to leave for a club that competes in these tournaments.

For the state of Meghalaya to be a football powerhouse, though, it is not just about what happens to only those players who leave the state to pursue their ambitions. It is also about those who are still playing in the local football circles.

The SPL is the premier competition of the state but has only seven teams, which means that a top player can play only a maximum of 12 games in an entire season. This is a ridiculously low figure. To be fair, players do play a lot of football throughout the year. Many of these are for their offices or some other teams in local tournaments. The problem I have with these local tournaments is that they have a knockout format, which means that players might end up playing just one match. There is no doubt that these tournaments attract good quality players. However, they are not long enough to emulate the intensity of a proper league. If their team is doing well, players get the chance to play a lot of matches. However, many others end up playing only a couple of matches. Once the tournaments are over, players, who switched teams during this period, return to their original teams for the main season, which, again, is not very long one.

A dip in form or injury during this period means that a certain player may miss out on top quality football for the entire season. As for the teams, a slow start could derail their entire season because of the short format. There is no scope for a comeback, which has become more difficult with the league format. Most importantly, playing only a handful of quality matches is not going to be enough for producing top professional footballers.

The other issue which concerns me is the lack of exposure of players to high level competition. The old Meghalaya Invitational Tournament was one outlet which brought competition from outside the state. It allowed local players to gauge their standard against others from outside the region. Instead of increasing the scope and inviting bigger teams to participate, the tournament is now defunct. This represents a big loss of opportunity for the local players who could have used the tournament to catch the attention of bigger teams.

Take the case of Stephanson Pale, who joined ATK reserves by dint of his performances for Langsning in the Second Division League 2017-18. Last year he played for Mohammedan Sporting in the Second Division League and scored a hat-trick against TRAU. Mohammedan noticed Stephanson while he was playing for Laban in a regional tournament.

Mohammedan Sporting are an iconic team of India football with its history going to the days of British rule. Apart from the honour of playing for such a historic team, the chance of catching the eye of the big three of Kolkata – Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and ATK – is much higher if one is playing in the Calcutta Football League.

Coming back to the SPL, improvement, especially regarding playing conditions, is necessary at all levels from the Fourth Division to the SPL. Meghalaya is not going to become a production line of top quality talents by playing in the mud. Last year the second leg of the SPL and the final were played in horrendous conditions. The new Shillong Sports Association administration had promised to repair First Ground, announcing that it will be ready for the second leg of SPL 2019. All one can see, though, are dug-up trenches which are not getting filled. Honestly, I don’t see First Ground getting ready for matches this season. If things move in the right direction, hopefully, the ground could be ready for the 2020 SPL second leg. We can only hope. At the moment, teams from lower divisions are forced to slug out in the mud of Second Ground. Even if teams want to play in the proper way the ground makes it impossible to implement that. Without improving playing conditions at all levels football in Meghalaya will not reach its potential.

Lastly, the most important thing to work on is consistency. Meghalaya has won national championships in the past. Periods of triumph, though, were punctured by long periods of drought. It should not take us another six years to win another Subroto Cup. Teams will improve next year but whichever school gets the opportunity to represent the state, anything less than reaching the final will be a failure.

As for senior football, the Santosh Trophy team has to go beyond the second round. In the last tournament, after getting out of a tough group, the team won only one match in the final round, which included a six-goal drubbing at the end of eventual champions Services. This present team is a formidable one and has leaders in every department.

In goal is Padam Chettri, who I believe is the best goalkeeper in the state. Defence is led by Kenstar, who has a very big personality. In the middle there is Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh Nonglait, who oozes confidence whenever he steps on the pitch. And with Phrangki in attack goals are guaranteed. Supporting these top players are others equally talented. Going deep into the tournament and possibly winning it will be good preparation for the 2022 National Games, which are going to be hosted by Meghalaya. Winning big and consistently will be the greatest challenge for Meghalaya football. Unless that happens we will always be a minor player in the country’s football circles.

The game is growing and Meghalaya has to be one of the torchbearers for the country. Can it happen? Of course it can. But there is still a lot of work to do for that. This requires the players becoming more professional, which can only happen when a supportive environment is created by those at the helm of affairs: the SSA, Meghalaya Football Association and state government. When the Meghalaya State League was held for just one season I was beginning to think that this government does not have the best interests of the state in mind. Now that they plan to hold it again, I hope that it will be another pillar which will support the game in the state.

Before I conclude I would like to congratulate Laban SC for their triumph in the 2019 Bodoland Gallants Gold Cup. Watching them play on television was a great pleasure. As one of the commentators remarked, Laban were more professional than their opponents and had the superior skills. This is exactly what Meghalaya needs. As for Laban, I hope this win will galvanise their SPL season. All the best!

(TSR representative photo)

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