The Indian Super League (ISL) draft in 2017 saw a first for Indian football. Shillong Lajong FC became the first club to earn transfer revenue in excess of one crore rupees when seven of their players were sold to various ISL teams for INR 1.47 crores. It was a moment to savour for a club which has done as much as any other to develop talent at the grassroots in the country.
Thirteen players in this year’s ISL started their careers at Lajong while four others have played for them during their formative years. As many as fourteen Lajong players were a part of the NorthEast United squad in the inaugural season of the ISL, when the owners held a stake in the newly formed franchise. That partnership ended and since then the club, which was the first team from the North East of India to participate in the I League in 2009-10, have focussed their attention on its academy and progress in that league. Last season saw them achieve their best finish yet when they finished fifth in the table.
What was even more impressive was that the average age of the squad was only 21 with U22 players forming a significant part of the team. The Lajong Academy is one of the finest in the country with young players joining them at the age of eleven or twelve, progressing through various age level groups before being ready for the big time. The club from Meghalaya does not look beyond the North East for players, except for goalkeepers.
The teams in the region take great pride in their ability to develop talent within and the biggest success story to come to the fore has been that of Aizawl FC. They made their first appearance in the I-League in 2015-16 and were immediately relegated. Only the withdrawal of Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube De Goa from the 2016-17 season maintained their status as an I-League club. What followed was probably the biggest underdog story in Indian football. On a shoe-string budget of only two crores, the team from Mizoram upset the apple cart and became the first team from the North East to win the I-League.
In the euphoria surrounding Aizawl’s efforts, another feel good story from the North East was missed by the mainstream media. In 2015-16, their debut season in the second division of the I- League, North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association Football Club (NEROCA FC) became the first North Eastern team to reach the final of the Durand Cup. After missing out on promotion that year, they duly delivered in 2017 and the team from Manipur won promotion comfortably and are currently plying their trade in the I-League.
The stories of these three teams, alongside those of other teams being assembled like Guwahati City FC and Shillong United (Royal Wahingdoh FC in a new avatar), suggest that the North Eastern states are lending weight to the long held view that this area is the hotbed of Indian football. Rangdajied United FC and United Sikkim FC have made I-League appearances in recent years as have Gangtok Himalayan FC in the second division.
There is North East United FC (NEUFC) too and while the ISL team is the most recognisable brand from the region given their platform, their results have been underwhelming. What is heartening however is the faith that they show in younger players, and this should bear fruit in the future.
In the meantime, the other northeastern teams lose their best players annually to the ISL, NEUFC included. For now, as in Shillong Lajong’s case, they are content being feeder clubs. Aizawl FC lost players from their title winning season to the ISL and Mohun Bagan. This was the case with NEROCA too. These clubs take great confidence in replacing their stars from within the academy setup, not unlike Southampton FC in England. While Southampton made that a model for success, reaping benefits along the way, recent years have seen them struggle and there is a lesson there for the clubs.
These are good times however and Indian football fans watching the I-League, ISL and the national team can look forward to more talent from the region showcasing their skills on the national and international stage.