The abandoned goldmine of Indian football

On Wednesday, April 5, an AFC Cup match will be held at the IGA Stadium in Guwahati, Assam. The home club is not Assamese but Aizawl FC. Other than geography, there is little that is out of the ordinary in Aizawl FC travelling nearly 500km out of Aizawl to Guwahati for a 'home' game. AFC criteria require matches be played on natural turf and maintaining a top-quality grass pitch in Mizoram is close to impossible.

The footballing incongruity lies close inside that new 'home': Assam, the region's biggest state, does not have a major presence in national football. More than 30 per cent of the 300-odd footballers in the ISL and the I-League this season have belonged to the north-east but only seven were from Assam: Indian international Halicharan Narzary, Baoringdo Bodo, Gaurav Bora, Pranjal Bhaumij, Alen Deory, Vinit Rai and Milan Basumatary.

The last time a club from Assam took part in the I-League second division competition was FC Green Valley five seasons ago, in 2014. Yes, the ISL has NorthEast United, which plays its home matches at the IGA, but the club was essentially a Mumbai-centric enterprise and didn't even have a permanent office in Guwahati till late 2017.

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Yet it is possible, during the season, to find five or six tournaments taking place in Assam every month. The Guwahati Sports Association League, for example, has four divisions and lasts around three months. Drive away from Guwahati in any direction and football hits you in the face. Football pitches are everywhere; pitches with thick grassy turf, knobbly goalposts at either end, with or without nets are as omnipresent on Assam's land as the sal and betel nut trees shooting up into its skies.

When there was one

On a clear morning in Bondapara village, around 150 boys and 24 girls have finished their morning football training at the Kamrupa Football Coaching Centre (KFCC). It's the formal name for former policeman Ranjit Das's project housed in the Bondapara Mini-Stadium, 80-odd kms west of Guwahati. It began in 2000, at the height of the Bodo movement. "My dream is that one of my boys should be an international", Das says.

That might not have happened yet but the KFCC has helped dozens of boys find footballing livelihoods. Most went into the public sector, some joined the academies of frontline clubs. Everyone in the region has heard of Das and come in numbers from around Kamrup district and its almost magically-named neighbour, Goalpara. (except pronounced "Gow-al"). The KFCC catchment area covers a population of around 50,000 in the 30-odd villages, with a tribal population of Bodos and Rabhas. They come from as far away as Goalpara and even Mirza, 50kms east.

The ambitions of two KFCC 19-year-olds, Deepjyoti Daimary and Jagdish Boro, are racing against time. Deepjyoti lives 30km away in Dudhnoi, has played for his school and wants to learn more under Das and his coaches. "Sir is known to produce good players. This is good for me technically to become a one-touch, two-touch player," Jagdish, from neighbouring Rajapara, says. "In the villages, they say players from here have the best chance."

Hovering around the big boys is the next generation - Ombika Das, 13, wants to be a "bada aadmi with football", while Runi Basumatary, 11, left-winger, fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, son of a local rice seller from Boko, 15km east, wants to become "like Halicharan Narzary."

Das began in 2000, at the height of the Bodo agitation, when he says, there were "lots of AK47s around and people didn't come out of their houses." He would travel 45kms from his home to Bondapara two Saturdays a month. His mission was to lure boys away from the gun. "If they do not play on this field, there are so many bad activities they can get to." When he set out, "then it was only me and only one boy came... now my family has become big."

Das took voluntary retirement from the police moved away from city life and now lives close by, "I can stay in Guwahati, but I won't get my dream to come true at all." It is tough to keep going with little notice from the big city and its possible armies of benefactors but to Das, his work here is lifeblood. For everyone involved.

Such a project is not an anomaly - the KFCC folk provide a number for the mightily-named Global Sports Academy situated in Gossaigaon, 200km away in Kokrajhar district, the heartland of Assamese football. Rahindra Brahmo, its president proudly talks about boys who have played for the state, and found jobs in the army and the police. There are other pockets elsewhere in Assam too - local efforts across districts like Karbi Anglong, Sivasagar, Tinsukia and Dibrugah. Randeep Baruah, football consultant and advertising professional, says "Assam football talent is a gold mine."

The Abandoned Gold Mine

At the state level, the gold is unmined. The lack of a sustained state League means that most teenage footballers want to leave the state as soon as possible. The contrast with smaller neighbouring states like Mizoram and Meghalaya is apparent. Ranajit Mahanta, former AIFF grassroots development officer says, "Mizoram have made the country come to them. In Assam, the players want to go outside the state."

At the state level, the gold is unmined. The lack of a sustained state League means that most teenage footballers want to leave the state as soon as possible. The contrast with smaller neighbouring states like Mizoram and Meghalaya is apparent. Ranajit Mahanta, former AIFF grassroots development officer says, "Mizoram have made the country come to them. In Assam, the players want to go outside the state."

Assam football, Ankur Dutta Assam Football Association (AFA) secretary says, "is dominated by the Assam Police, Assam Rifles, Steel Authority of India, Oil India, the State Electricity Board. Also, their priority is not football - it's oil production or power production, so there are certain limitations." Everywhere in the world, he says, "football is promoted by the clubs not the association... the problem in my state is that clubs are for two months taking part in tournaments. After two months, there is no existence of the club, so the problem is that the player cannot follow football as a profession." What is the AFA's role? "We have to develop the youth and also have to make clubs professional."

In 2015, Assam was one of half a dozen Indian states selected for a FIFA grassroots initiative to encourage the under-8s and above to take to football, and have the sport grow organically beyond the tournament-centric structures of the state associations. Assam is also one of the three states that the FIFA pulled out of. Dutta, in Assam football administration for around two decades, says, "I have written to them but I am not getting a reply from AIFF."

Could there be a way to work with the clubs to create a league of the kind found in Mizoram and Meghalaya? "The clubs are not under Assam Football Association, they are under the 15 district football associations," Dutta says. "If you see who is promoting football in Mizoram and Meghalaya and Manipur, it is the clubs."

As the phone conversation gets more testy, Dutta has his own question. "What type of event do you want me to create?"

What a football club can do

There are more than a few people in his state and his city who have the answers to his question. Tackling Assam's decades-old ennui is taking place in several innovative ways. There's a millennial solution being tried out too. The Guwahati City Football Club (GCFC) came to be in June 2017, as a few Facebook 'friends' got together, "frustrated about supporting other clubs day and night, fed up of supporting Bengaluru FC and Barcelona... we thought let's start a new club, our own club, Guwahati's own club."

Siddhartha Sankar Deka, one of the GCFC's founders and co-owner, says their appreciation for BFC remains because they have changed the club narrative in this country. "We want to follow them not in terms of money but the professionalism they have brought," he says.

Within the first few months, the group set up a limited liability partnership company called Sports Craft Management, whose revenues will be pumped into the GCFC. The club's core team is not full of football industry pros - there's journalist Deka, PR professional Rangman Das, a marketing professional, Darick Ranjan Deka and digital marketing expert Kaustab Chakraborty. GCFC are sure they will work grassroots up, even though it means having to answers the question: "Where is your team?" meaning a senior team - competing in Assam's dozens of tournaments. A senior team alone, believe GCFC does not a football club make. "The team is a part of the club, not the whole club," Deka says. "It is not the only thing to do - that you can come for a month and disappear."

It is the template of many private, non-institutional clubs in the state, who hire players per event and pay them per game - anything from Rs 500 to Rs 2000. This includes a few more expensive "foreign" strikers to pull in the crowds. Once the tournament is done, they go into hibernation, until the next tournament of choice comes along. These clubs have no roster of seasonal signings - only rental players with no security, no loyalty, no field, no pathway programme. The only exception is the 116-year-old Guwahati Town Club, who run their feeder academy for under-12, under-15 and under-19 players on Judges Field, which is on long-lease from the government.

GCFC wants to give as many under-13s six months of playing time as they can, building under-13 and under-15 networks, setting up an academy for local kids and launch the country's third Baby Leagues project during the summer. Early funds have been raised by staging two events, the Guwahati Futsal "festival" (a two-day jamboree open to all age teams under-22) and a summer camp. The 12-day camp held in July 2017 featured technical guidance from Shillong Lajong coaches, pulled in 165 boys from as far away as Chattisgarh and Bhutan - this without any promise of being age group or selection trials of any kind. Two festivals of Futsal, featured a total of 100-plus teams including six under-13s squads from Manipur.

These are eye-popping numbers: it doesn't mean that an Indian Messi or Ronaldo is about to pop inside a year, but they show the energy and fuel that the game that is latent in the region. Deka says, "football's undercurrent... you can't imagine how strong it is."

So strong that it could crash through hidebound barriers of Assam's football and burn down straitjacket of personal fiefdoms? Assam's lone star, Narzary speaking to ESPN in 2016, had a message for the young footballers of his state. "I want to say to Assam, to boys like me. Play, you must play as much as you can, you must play outside.... If we play, it means others can also play... I only want to say play, keep playing, keep moving ahead."