Shillong, Oct 18: Even in just a few short years, since 2017, football in Meghalaya has undergone some pretty big changes.
That was the year that a new executive committee took charge of the Meghalaya Football Association. It should have only served four years but lasted for six until last Saturday due to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
During that time the MFA was led by its President, Larsing Ming Sawyan, who has spent 15 years in football administration, beginning in 2008 when he was MFA General Secretary before becoming an All India Football Federation Vice-President. All that while still running Shillong Lajong FC, one of the most successful football clubs in the state, and his business empire to boot.
During his presidency the MFA was able to secure the financial support of the state government for the new Meghalaya State League. Meghalaya was also the site in 2018 of the very first pilot Baby League, whose template was replicated around the country. The MFA hosted the final round of the AIFF’s U-18 Youth League in 2017-18 (which Lajong won), the second edition of the Indian Women’s League in 2018 and Junior Boys’ National Football Championship (Tier 1) in 2019.
The state team won the sub-junior boys’ nationals that year and the senior men’s team were runners-up in the Santosh Trophy earlier this year. Although they failed to land the big crown, getting to the final was a mark of the transformation that Meghalaya football has undergone as the state had been able to shine at the youth levels before but always disappointed at senior tournaments.
Since Sawyan took charge, there has also been a dramatic upswing in the number of football coaches and referees who have been trained in the state. So, with all this, he had much to choose from when TSR asked him to pick the accomplishment he is most proud of.
“It is difficult to pinpoint any particular event or tournament. I’m most satisfied with the consistency of the state teams over the last decade, particularly over the last five years where they have vastly improved,” Sawyan said. “At the senior levels we were never able to break new frontiers. But in the last four editions of the Santosh Trophy, Meghalaya were the only team in the North East to make it to the final rounds. That is testimony to the progress football has made in Meghalaya and the cherry on top was the runners-up finish this year.”
Obviously, however, not everything has been perfect. While proud of the MFA to have pioneered the Baby League, it was halted by Covid-19 and never got going again. Shillong was also able to host the IWL successfully in 2018 but no club from Meghalaya has ever featured in the tournament because we still don’t have a statewide women’s league.
“We can’t give ourselves a perfect score in all departments. There are some gaps, some areas where we could’ve done better,” Sawyan said. “There’s a lot to be done. The Baby League has to be reintroduced and I hope and believe that the new executive body will take it up on a new footing because football development has to begin at the formative years.”
His administration has left behind plans and proposals for the new body. The MFA has a Mission 2028, included in which is the ambition to connect the Baby League up to the MSL with several grassroots leagues and youth tournaments. He also feels that the Shillong Premier League (which falls under the ambit of the Shillong Sports Association and not the MFA) is the most prominent of the local leagues but has to be “reenergised” as that is where the MSL begins.
As for women’s football, Sawyan said that the game has to be developed at the grassroots and a league should not be imposed from above. “We have much to do with women’s football. The second Baby League (in 2019) saw many more girls taking part. So, that was a positive but women’s football development has to be looked at over a 10-year plan. We have left the new body a proposal for an inter-district tournament as the clubs are still yet to come on board.”
Looking ahead, the MFA now passes to a new set of leaders. Hamletson Dohling, the new President, is a football enthusiast but hasn’t been involved in the sport’s administration in any great way before now. Nevertheless, Sawyan is confident in the abilities of the new body.
“I’ve known the new President for two decades. He has a big love of football. We are there to help guide and advise but there are a number of executive members who have been in the MFA for many years,” he said while complimenting the “good mix” of youth and experience.
Shillong Lajong are heading back to the I-League after a four-year gap and that is where a lot of Sawyan’s football focus will be directed for now.
“It’s been an eventful 15 years for me. I step back now to give opportunity to others to take up the task,” he said. “Meghalaya football has lots to look forward to, particularly in light of state government initiatives. The MFA has shared its vision with the government and they are coming up with a huge number of plans, so these are promising times for Meghalaya.”
(Meghalaya Football Association photo)