My colleague Pratik Purakayastha and I drove to Haokha Mamang Leikai, a village just off the Indo-Myanmar highway, on a rainy morning in September last year. Every few kilometres we would spot a poster with an image of eight boys in the national football team kit, arms crossed in front of their chests. Wherever we saw these posters, we would stop to ask directions. At one such interval, a young boy crossed us on a bicycle, promptly turned around and motioned for us to follow.
Five days later, Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, boys the young cyclist had grown up with in Haokha, were announced as members of the Indian team in FIFA’s under-17 world championship. Eight of the 21 boys representing India were from Imphal and its neighbouring villages in Manipur. But Renedy Singh, a former team captain for India from Awang Sekmai—another village in the north-eastern state—told me that younger players in the state faced several difficulties. “Coaching and other football related facilities have improved a lot, but, still, no one tells them what they are supposed to do if they can’t make it as players or even what to do when their careers end at the age of 30-35,” he said. While residential academies have provisions for classroom education, according to Singh, it is often conducted as a formality and does not account for the fact that players are frequently on the move.
Haokha gets few visitors, and fewer still that arrive in private cars, so the boy knew where we were looking to go. He led us towards Thounaojam’s house. We passed by the Asem Gojendro Memorial English High School, where children in Haokha begin their education and play football on a small patch of mottled grass just outside its main gate. Deben Thounaojam, Jeakson’s father, was among a group of men standing around at a small corner shop near the school. Deben shook our hands and silently led us down a narrow, unpaved path. His house, like many others in the region, was made of brick and had makeshift partitions instead of inside walls. There was an abundance of sports memorabilia inside, including photographs, medals, trophies, newspaper clippings and a framed certificate of his daughter Jayalakshmi’s high-school graduation. As we drank tea and made small talk, Deben retreated quietly into the background. In 2015, the 53-year-old had a stroke that has made physical activity and speech extremely difficult.
The room rapidly filled up with passers-by keen to know who we were. Among them was Umakanta Singh Kiyam, Amarjit’s 23-year-old brother. Umakanta and Jeakson’s older brother Jonychand were Deben’s first proteges: Deben had taught them the basics of football and encouraged them to pursue it as an occupation. “Jeakson’s baba loves football and used to play himself,” Bilasini, Jeakson’s mother, said, adding that he was also an athlete and played briefly for the local club. In 2004, he enrolled Jonychand in the Chandigarh Football Academy, which accepted talented players without fees. Two years later, Umakanta attended the academy as well.
Despite the opportunities in Chandigarh, Jeakson also spoke of the challenges of studying while playing. In an interview with the All India Football Federation, he said, “We used to go to class but most of us academy boys were so tired we could not even listen to the lessons. We would just take the back benches and fall asleep.” According to Bilasini, her sons also faced financial constraints. “Even in the holidays I had to tell my son not to come home,” Bilasini told us. “In Chandigarh he had a decent place to live and was getting a good diet. That helped him get taller.” At 6 feet 2 inches, Jeakson was the tallest outfield player in the team. “It was very difficult for us not to see our boys but we didn’t always have the money for them to come home and to maintain their diets when they came back.”
She explained that because of the high levels of organised crime, drugs and unemployment in Manipur—where over 7 lakh educated youths were unemployed according to the 2011 census—football seemed like a plausible escape route for their family. But though she spoke proudly about her sons representing India, she appeared disturbed. “For all of us, particularly for Jeakson’s baba, the World Cup is the biggest moment of our lives,” she said. “But we don’t know if we will be there to witness it. We don’t have the money to travel to Delhi to watch the games.” The family has other anxieties too: Jonychand, having made a promising start to his career by representing India at the under-19 level, is now unemployed, although he continues to play with local teams. To have produced two World Cup footballers from a small village, with little or no formal education, or even an adequate playing field, is a remarkable achievement, but Deben appeared overcome with despair. “What will happen to my Jonychand?” he asked.
After a couple of hours with the Thounaojams, Umakanta led us 50 metres away, to the Kiyam residence. His parents, brother and grandmother pulled out a bag with memorabilia from Kiyam’s football career and Umakanta recalled buying his younger brother his first pair of Nike boots during a team trip to visit Arsenal—the British football club—in 2009. A recurring calf injury forced Umakanta to quit the team afterwards; he now trains locally and plays where he can. “From the time we were little all we have done is play football,” Umakanta told me. He added that although he did not regret his decision, if he had to do it again he would choose to spend more time in the classroom. “When you give a child the option of either playing or studying, most will choose to play. Now we are back home in Manipur, in our mid-20s and with little or nothing to show for it. We are back at square one.”
For Renedy Singh, the priority for sports academies should be appointing advisors to monitor and support players, creating virtual classrooms so players can study during long periods on the road and partnering with bodies such as the Football Players Association, who can speak to young players about the necessity of having an alternative plan if a career in football does not look likely. “Now, with more and more academies coming up and selling kids all sorts of dreams, this part of the story becomes all the more critical,” he said. “If not, football in Manipur will end up like most other things—a complex web of unfulfilled potential.”