Emboklang Nongklaw from East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, Lalremtluanga Fanai from Bawngkawn, and Isac Zomuanpuia from Sihphir, both in Mizoram, have very similar stories to tell. The boys, all born in 2004, share a common passion – football. And they all wanted to excel at it. They also had another thing in common – they all came from extremely humble backgrounds. Today, they have made a place for themselves in the U15 Indian squad – Emboklang plays the wings, Lalremtluanga is central defender/defensive midfielder, while Isac is a striker.
The beautiful game
Football is the most popular sport in the world. FIFA’s World Cup 2018 was viewed by 3.52 billion people. The Federation is always looking to develop the sport further and India and China, as two of the most populous countries in the world, are critical to the global expansion of the game.
“Football is an immensely popular sport in the north-eastern part of India. With more exposure to modern football, and local icons like Jeje, Renedy, Eugeneson, Udanta and Halicharan, the aspirations of the younger generation have risen,” Zonsangzela, Isac’s father, points out. He himself was a local-level footballer who had opened a small football academy called Grace Football Academy in his village. He’d hoped to train young boys and girls to play professionally.
Catching them young
Biswanath Sinha, Head, Sports, at Tata Trusts, says, “So far, football hadn’t been looked at as a viable career option because of the limited opportunities available in the North-east region. While many players from the region have excelled at both national and international levels, there had never been a focused attempt to use the sport as a means to address socio-developmental issues or to promote it as a career.”
The Tata Trusts have a long history of contribution to the development of sport in the country, dating back to 1927, when Sir Dorabji Tata had established the Indian Olympic Association, with the help of Dr AG Noeheren (then Director of the YMCA).
In 2016 , the Trusts’ initiated its Football Initiative in Mizoram with the objective of addressing the lack of robust grassroots coaching programmes and the absence of good sports infrastructure, by implementing programmes that would nurture fresh talent, as well as promote livelihood opportunities in the regions in which they operate.
In 2018, the Trusts set up a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Aizawl, Mizoram, equipped with international and Indian coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists and other support staff. The coaches scouted 250 players who were put through two rounds of the selection process – in March 2019, 30 cadets, aged between 12-15 years were chosen to reside at the CoE to continue with their education and receive football training. Emboklang, Laremtluanga and Isac were among the children who sailed through the selection.
The boys were enrolled into a reputed school at Aizawl and they commenced their training under the watchful eyes of Colm Toal, Bitan Singh and other coaches. The overall atmosphere at the CoE was extremely beneficial to the development of the boys’ football skills. They have the advantage of in-house education provided by the CoE’s qualified coaches, and free access to Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, the finest football pitch in Mizoram.
Twenty-one of CoE’s cadets have been called for the Indian National Team’s selection camp. The CoE team also won the Mizoram U15 League for two consecutive years. This extremely competitive league is the only league in its age group in India that is telecast live on TV.
The talents of Emboklang, Laremtluanga and Isac didn’t go unnoticed – they soon captured the attention of the national selectors, and after undergoing the gruelling selection process, the boys made their way to the U15 national team. This is a remarkable achievement given that the boys made the national team within a short span of time.
For Mr Zonsangzela, his son’s achievement is a dream come true. With a gleam of pride in his eyes, he says, “Isac’s selection in the national team is as much my achievement, for I’d been honing his skills since he was nine years old. But if it weren’t for the Tata Trusts, it would have been difficult for Isac to get that extra edge in football.”
Succesly Lytan, Emboklang’s father, who drives a taxi in Meghalaya to support his family of ten, says: “I knew Embok could make it big given the right opportunity.” However, Mr Lytan couldn’t have imagined that the youngest of his eight children would make it to the CoE, and then to the national team within two short years. “After joining the CoE, Embok became more disciplined and determined to succeed in life. He has also started taking his education more seriously. I am sure Embok will become a well-known player not just in India but also at the international level,” added Mr Lytan with a smile.
For the Trusts, this success is a vindication of its Sports vision. “Talent was always in abundance,” says Mr Sinha, “We just needed to push a bit with the best of technical guidance, balanced nutrition and better discipline; basically, provide the right mix for growth and ignite their passion further. The rest just falls in place.”