Shillong, Aug 11: Early morning at 5AM a crowd gathers around the village ground in Longja in the Chandel district of Manipur – barely a couple of hours from the Indo-Myanmar border.
A group of boys ranging from ages 8-20 have all formed a huddle around a nimble figure donning the Blue Tigers training kit, as the latter explains the finer details of the game to them.
The people gathering around the ground that is surrounded by the eastern reaches of the Himalayan mountains listen to the India International, who had last year scored his maiden goal for the Blue Tigers in the World Cup Qualifier against Afghanistan – Seiminlen ‘Len’ Doungel.
For the 26-year-old winger this was an opportunity to get back to his roots and connect with people from the Kuki tribe, of which he is a member.
“Coming here was quite special for me. My family is also from the Kuki tribe. Much like most of the Kuki people my father also used to get his earnings from the farm. We have sort of moved on from that way of life since I became a professional. But coming here and experiencing the simplicity with which these people lead their lives was simply amazing,” Doungel said to the-aiff.com.
Doungel, who plays for FC Goa in the Indian Super League but who also once played for Shillong Lajong in the 2014-15 I-League, went on to stay in that village for two and a half weeks in order to impart his footballing knowledge to the local kids.
“I felt a real connection to these people. Even when I am in Manipur I mostly get to speak my language (Thadou Kuki) at home. With these people I could speak that,” he said. “The kids there were really simple and did not know much about the world of football,” adding that they were still enamoured by the game.
“They all know how to play football and like to play it too. But what they do not know is the scope that the sport has in the modern day. Back in my younger days we did not know much of the scope of pursuing football as a professional. But now football can give you a viable career – be it as a player or in any field surrounding the game,” he explained.
In his time at the Longja village, Len followed a regimental lifestyle, heading out to the field with the boys as early as 5AM.
“I don’t think I’ve ever woken up that early to start my training,” laughed Len. “But these guys were all really eager to start their training early, and I obliged. Some of the guys were so enthusiastic that they would even come to the ground an hour before and would start warming up from 4AM.”
The morning sessions would last for almost three to four hours, as Len would impart his on and off the pitch footballing knowledge to around 40 kids from the village. These kids were divided into two groups, as per their age. The junior group comprised kids between the ages of eight and 14, while the senior group comprised those between the ages of 15 and 20.
“They were a little rusty at first, but with small tweaks to their training techniques here and there, we could soon see the change in the way these guys played,” said Len. “After a few days we took these guys to play against some neighbouring villages, and they actually won. First 1-0, and then 3-1!”
While the rigorous morning session would entail a lot of rest during the day, Len, along with the boys, would hit the ground again for another session between 4 and 6PM.
“Once it gets dark, there’s very little to do there, and we all used to have our dinner and go to bed by 9-9:30PM,” he informed.
The people of the village did as much as they could to accommodate their visitor, even going to the extent of changing their own diet for the couple of weeks that the Blue Tigers midfielder stayed with them.
“The people of the village generally love to eat their staple diet – pork – and share the meat with everyone in the community. But I generally avoid that meat because of the fat. When I told them, they were very understanding and offered me chicken instead. They themselves even refrained from eating pork for those two weeks, so that I would not feel left out. That was really sweet of them,” Len recalled.
The experience of going back in time to live with people of the tribe that he hails from has been an overwhelming one for the 26-year-old footballer, who generally does not get the time for such activities anymore.
“I barely have the time to just come home for a month or two during a regular season. But the lockdown has given me the opportunity to go back to my roots and experience first-hand how the people of my community live in the rural areas,” said Len.
“I can say that they may not have a lot of amenities that we take for granted in the city, but the effort they put in, and the love that the shower you with is overwhelming. They may be poor, but they are rich at heart,” he quipped.
(All India Football Federation photo)