The Siliguri Corridor or ‘Chicken’s Neck’ as it is popularly called, is a narrow stretch of land in West Bengal that connects mainland India with the northeast. Since independence, this corridor has created a geographic and symbolic barrier between the northeastern states and the rest of the country.
This has been true in football too. Until recently, a journey into the mainland and vice versa has been a road less travelled by footballers. In times gone past, Kolkata has been a staging post of sorts. Talimeren Ao, the country’s first captain, made his name in the mainland only because he made the long and arduous journey into the city to study medicine. And even he retreated into the Naga hills to serve his people as soon as his education was complete.
Until the mid 1980s, footballers from the northeast were few and far between on the national stage. The Special Area Games (SAG) scheme and the opening of the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur changed things and a lot more players from the region found avenues to hone their undoubted talent.
One of these players was Shylo Malsawmtluanga from Mizoram. Like K. Kawllianthanga, who was the first Mizo player to represent India in 1977, he was a pioneer of sorts. He moved to the Tata Football Academy as a youngster and found it to be challenging. There was a huge language barrier and the solitude he found himself lost in did not help. He would secretly cry at times but would tell himself that football was all he had to improve matters.
His determination to make things better paid off. After appearing for India as a junior international, he was recruited by East Bengal in 2002. This was the fillip that a state with a population of less than one million at the time needed. No other Mizo player had ever done what Shylo had and suddenly all those watching were given a chance to dream.
After he joined East Bengal, they went on a great run winning two back-to-back NFL titles, a couple of Durand Cup trophies and the ASEAN Cup in 2003. His performances won him a place in the Indian team, for whom he made three appearances.
‘Mama’, as he is fondly called in Mizoram inspired a whole generation of players and more of them started to make the journey into the mainland to play professionally. Jerry Zirsanga, Lalrindika Ralte and Jeje Lalpekhlua, among others have become household names. Today, Mizoram is the biggest hotbed of footballing talent in the country. Shylo Malsawmtluanga has shown the way.