Manipur has always enjoyed a special position in Indian football. The state has produced many talented footballers over the years, and in this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup, eight players from Manipur were a part of the national squad. But, the I-League has always been a distant dream for the people of this region.
Manipuri clubs have consistently failed to qualify for the competition in the past and that has led to a mass exodus of local talent. However, the dream will finally come true on Friday when NEROCA FC take on Chennai City FC in Imphal.
For NEROCA FC, the journey to I-League has been nothing short of a fairytale. The club was originally established in 1965, but it was not until three years ago that it started to take a professional approach towards the game. Under a new management, they slowly started to build the squad with coach Gift Raikhan at the helm. In their very first season in the I-League second division, they finished third behind champions Dempo and fellow I-League side Minerva Punjab FC.
However, it was 2016 when NEROCA FC truly established themselves as the next football powerhouse from the northeast. The side enjoyed a 14-match unbeaten run en route their title victory and in the process, became the first Manipur team to qualify for the Indian top-flight tournament.
It was a promotion that was long overdue and NEROCA FC director Naoba Thangjam Singh believes the club is ready to learn from the past mistakes and excel on the big stage.
The success was also instrumental in bringing state funds to improve football infrastructure in the state. The sports minister of Manipur, Letpao Haokip, promised a new pitch and floodlights at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in preparation for their I-League debut to allow NEROCA FC to concentrate on other matters. The government has also promised to provide practice fields to the teams in the region and to help set up a youth academy to train young talent at the grassroots level.
However, for coach Gift Raikhan, all of this comes second. The former Pune FC assistant coach, who joined NEROCA FC in 2015, has only one goal in mind ahead of their first home game of the season.
“The infrastructure has improved a lot in the last couple of years. But, at the end of the day, we need to play good football and on Friday, our main goal will be to make our supporters proud,” Raikhan told Hindustan Times over said.
Source: Hindustan Times