The Indian north east has been an unexplored but troubled region.
When the Indian Super League (ISL) commenced a couple of seasons ago, it got a united identity in the form of the NorthEast United Football club. It’s a region rich in football talent and now they had their reprentatives at the glamourous league. The crowds bought into the phenomenon instantly and thronged to the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati — the home of NEUFC.
Two seasons on and the football crazy region is entering yet another autumn where their team is struggling to find their place in the pecking order. The league might still be in the early stages but it seems the bond between the spectators and the team is a hundred years old.
This time around, the expectation quotient has been dialed up a few notches as Guwahati hosts the ISL opener. With it comes the glitz of the opening ceremony, which has its mandatory Bollywood element. The Highlanders will also be aware that in the previous seasons, the hosts of the curtain raiser have ended up as champions — Atletico de Kolkata in 2014 and Chennaiyin in 2015. Can NorthEast United complete the hat-trick? Or is it too much to ask for too soon?
NEUFC has a strong connection with Bollywood. The only reason the region has their own team is John Abraham, a Keralite by birth, who won the bid to own the Guwahati franchise. As years have passed on, from being a part of a consortium, actor and model Abraham has secured most of the rights as the primary owner of club. It helps that he is a massive football fan himself.
Humble beginnings as most do, the only big name the club brought in during the first season was marquee player Joan Capdevila while others were busy flashing off the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia. It became too humble of course as they ended up at the bottom of the table. It seemed almost unfair to their fans, who diligently turned up for their games in big numbers and with big voices.
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The club was also unique for its recrutiment policy – all but one domestic player of the franchise hailed from the catchment area of the team. Incidentally, the only non-northeastern lad, Rehenesh T.P., the Kerala-born goalkeeper, shone brightest amidst all the poor performance by the Guwahati-based team.
The same formula followed on for the last season as well. Some more known faces in the domestic circuit were added but from the north-east only, replicating the academy structure of Spanish Premier Division club Athletic Bilbao where they only take in youngsters from the Basque region.
The results were indeed good last season but still not good enough. The suave and charismatic Cesar Farias coached the team with Indian version of Tony Pulis – Santosh Kashyap — on board as his assistant. There was another trend the team followed wherein an I-League club manager was involved as an understudy to help the integration of the local players into the foreign coach’s methods.
In 2014, Thangboi Singto, the Shillong Lajong boss held that post back when the Meghalaya club’s owner Larsing Ming Sawyan also held some shares at NorthEast United. With the arrival of Santosh Kashyap, who had just led Royal Wahingdoh to a third place finish in their debut season in the I-League, and the presence of a number of flamboyant players, had everyone thinking that the good times were about to roll.
They finished two points behind the cut-off of 20 for the semi-finals but had won full points for trying real hard after a torrid start. In reality, the club had failed to take a step forward even if an optimist would argue that finishing fifth, as opposed to last in the inaugural season, was an achievement in itself.
John Abraham and his management from the onset were clear about creating an ethos in the team structure, taking along the spirit of the northeast. But as the ISL enters its third season and in all probability the last in the current format, most of those ideals, even if they were mainly unwritten rules, were shipped right out of the window.
Currently, less than two thirds of their Indian contingent is ‘northeastern’ born. The domestic additions are quite big names in themselves — goalkeeper Subrata Paul, full back Shouvik Ghosh, midfielder Rowllin Borges and striker Sumeet Passi are the new faces along with the retained Rehenesh T.P.
Where Paul needs no introduction, Borges has established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet for India under coach Stephen Constantine. Sumeet Passi recently forayed into international football and already has a goal to his name. Shouvik, a former Dynamo is a dependable left footed player who came back from injury this year and played a bit part role at Mohun Bagan’s successful 2015-16 season.
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The club also underwent a change in management. Cesar Farias was tipped never to return as he got a taste of continental football with Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno in the Copa Libertadores – the Latin American equivalent of the Champions League.
Enter his namesake, Sergio Farias from Brazil – an AFC Champions League winner with Korea Republic’s Pohang Steelers. But alas, things turned sour when Farias was courted back by his old club, Suphanburi from Thailand and he ended his reign in 53 days.
Nelo Vingada’s arrival brought a sense of calm late into the build up. Vingada brings with him 35 years of football experience and he soon offloaded a few players who had Farias’ seal of approval.
The biggest catch though would be the returning Nicolas Velez, a popular man in Guwahati. In two foreigners, NorthEast ventured for tried and tested ones in the ISL – the marquee Didier Zokora and 2015 champion Mailson Alves. Katsumi Yusa who is a favourite in the Kolkata maidans has also taken the plunge into the ISL.Clearly, ideas have changed and NorthEast United are no longer a prisoner of their former philosophical entity. They have made a more rational changes and go into the season with a fresh approach.
Can they win the ISL? They might.
Can they win the heart of the spectators? Well, don’t they rule over them already?