AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: Sitting at his home in Kolkata, Kiren Khongsai was, for once, thrilled and a bit surprised, when he read the news in the morning. "Every day you read about so many troubling things, and even today, the front page was about the earthquake. It was heart-breaking," he says. "But when I reached the last page, I was thrilled, happy that at last Manipur is getting something it deserved."
The Federation’s decision to stage the Hero Tri-Nation Friendly Football Tournament in Imphal between March 22-28, in line with it's objectives in Vision 2047 to spread the game far and wide, has earned a lot of applause, with many former players from the state feeling that this long due honour will do a lot more for the beautiful game in the state. It is for the first time the Senior India Men’s team will play official international matches in Manipur.
On Monday, the honourable Chief Minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh made the announcement of Igor Stimac’s team playing the Hero Tri-Nation Friendly Football Tournament in Imphal. Kyrgyz Republic and Myanmar are the other teams in fray. Federation President Mr Kalyan Chaubey and Secretary General Dr Shaji Prabhakaran were present in the press conference in Imphal.
For Khongsai, this is a moment of personal pride too. He was the first player from the state to ever turn out in the Team India colours, making his debut in 1989, against Sri Lanka in SAFF Games in Islamabad. Khongsai made a mere six appearances for India (scoring one goal), but his mere presence was the breaking of a glass ceiling. Presented with the evidence, that this 34-year journey may well be his doing, he downplays it. "I was lucky to play for India when I did," he says. "It is an honour and I am glad that I share this honour with many more Manipur players."
The earlobe of India has always made itself heard loudly in Indian Football, having contributed over 50 players to the Indian Men and Women Senior National Teams over the years. Oinam Bembem Devi, one of the game's greatest female players, believes that hosting an international at the Khuman Lampak will inspire more young players to keep their heads down and work hard to earn their stripes.
"I’m glad that the Federation and the Manipur Government have taken this long due honour to our home," she says. "I can tell you from personal experience that hosting these sort of prestigious events goes a long way to providing motivation for players. When the Women’s Nationals was hosted in Imphal in 1991-92, I was very young, and I remember watching the games, seeing such big players and hoping to emulate them.
"Watching Sunil Chhetri and others in the flesh will be a massive morale booster for today's youngsters who have heard of them, seen them on TV but never otherwise."
AIFF Executive Member, and former India Women International Thongam Tababi Devi was keen to add that while the Men had the honour of passing through Imphal first, it also sowed hope for the women next. "Many girls in the Women’s team are from Manipur and many in the past also have been from the state," she says. "It’s good that they are bringing the Men’s team here in March. Hopefully after this the women will also get to turn out in front of their home fans, friends and family."
Former India midfielder Gunabir Singh, another pioneer of Manipur football has no doubt that the fixtures would be a grand success — even in terms of results for the team — but also offered words of caution."
Khuman Lampak Stadium has a capacity of about 35,000, and I think it might prove to be too small," he laughs. "The boys will have full support from a stadium and indeed a state bursting at the seams in its love for Indian football."