Is Shillong’s football scene in a state of decay?


Dino Renthlei

From struggling local leagues to the national stage, football in Shillong has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the decades. Or bluntly speaking, it's been more of an uphill climb considering the sluggish growth of the sport which at one time saw local stars being born thanks to the game. Financial gains was a whole different story.

In the recent years we saw Shillong's top tier clubs Shillong Lajong FC, Royal Wahingdoh FC, Rangdajied United FC, and Langsning FC have been instrumental in bringing about a significant change to the city's football scene by following a more professional approach with the signing of big players, national and international, and being managed and operated by experienced professionals. In fact, they have altered the perception of football being 'just a hobby sport' to something the younger generation could look forward to as more of a career option.

Shillong Lajong's entry into the I League in 2009 was literally the turning point for Northeast football. Support for the Reds came in from all quarters garnering attention and placing Meghalaya in the country's professional football map. Other Shillong-based clubs soon followed, subsequently climbing their way up from the I League 2nd Division. Rangdajied United finally became the second club from Meghalaya to play in the I League when they qualified for the 2013-14 edition of the league. Meanwhile, Royal Wahingdoh FC finally made it to the league in the 2014-15 season although by this time, Rangdajied United were unable to participate as a result of failing to meet the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) club licensing criteria (which is based on the Asian Football Confederation criteria).

Around the time that Lajong joined the I League, football in the city witnessed a healthy kick-off with the Shillong Premier League also attracting considerably large crowds for most matches and fans having a good reason to frequent Polo Grounds. In 2010, the Shillong Premier League showed promise for a positive future towards football in the state with a jam packed stadium whenever clubs such as Langsning, Lajong, Rangdajied, Wahingdoh, or Meghalaya Police FC were playing.

Meghalaya's football scene had finally arrived after years of anticipation and 'branding' that it was the country's football hub. Foreign players were being signed and footballers from all parts of the country were being invited to join local clubs, something that was unheard of in earlier years. But on the larger platform (this being the I League), it was still ShillongLajong bringing pride to Northeast India as they were the only side from the region to play in the league. The Reds' inspiration rubbed off and soon, as mentioned, other Shillong clubs began marking their presence in the nation's supposedly most prestigious football tournament after earning qualification. Lajong came followed by Rangdajied United. The club from Mawphlang, a village in Meghalaya, started their I League campaign on a scratchy note, failing to win any of their first ten matches. But a remarkable turnaround saw them escape relegation after winning four of their last eight matches besides a decisive last match draw against local rivals Shillong Lajong that allowed them to hold their place.

But despite fighting hard for another shot at the league in the following year, the Blues were dropped for not meeting the AIFF's licensing criteria along with Churchill Brothers from Goa and United Sports Club from Kolkata. This came as a major setback for them and serious warning bells were sounded to other clubs aiming for I League participation.

Though criticism poured from all quarters asking why the AIFF would enforce club licensing rules so strictly when they themselves have constantly delayed handing out prize money to winning clubs and delaying or postponing leagues and tournaments with their shoddy sense of timing.

Royal Wahingdoh however marched on despite the odds. In 2014, Royal Wahingdoh successfully achieved their dream of making it into the I League after several tireless attempts to move past the I League 2nd Division. After being exempted from meeting the licensing criteria by the AIFF, the 'Royals' as they're popularly referred to, made a strong statement finishing the league in third position.

But in a rather surprising announcement, the club stated in November that they would not be participating in the 2015-16 season of the I League. The reason was clear and simple. Because they believed the AIFF lacks 'vision' and 'clarity' and has no sense of direction for Indian football. With an I League-Indian Super League (ISL) merge already in talks, Wahingdoh along with Pune FC and Bharat FC probably realised the impracticality of such a venture before they eventually decided to pull out.

According to Royal Wahingdoh's Managing Director Mr. Dominic Sutnga, there was no certain future for Indian football clubs that have struggled to keep the sport alive. "There is no clarity by the AIFF as to where football in the country is headed and what future Indian clubs have. The I League-ISL merge is also very unclear," he added while stressing that a minimum of at least 16 to 17 clubs should be a part of the league/ tournament if footballers from across the nation are to sign contracts and remain employed.

Mr.Sutnga went on to say, "If only 8 teams continue playing in the tournament, the future of a lot of clubs and players will be in doldrums." When asked about the scope of current U-15 Youth League and U-18 I League players after the merge, he replied, "Our youth teams for the U-15 and U-18 leagues will carry on. But the future of these youth players and others after they have exceeded the maximum age limit for U-18 leagues remains unknown to any of us as of now."

However, he strongly opined that football in Shillong is still going strong. "Football in Shillong is certainly not dead. Community-based clubs will continue to thrive and keep local football alive. This is because of the passion that many enthusiasts have for football. Shillong is definitely a football hub as football remains the most popular sport here. We will continue playing in the Shillong Premier League and other youth leagues as we have always been doing."

While Northeast football appears to have taken a bit of a hit, the same can be said for other football clubs based outside the region. The idea of having only one club representing one state for the planned league will shut the doors on many clubs that have been functioning for decades.

With the All India Football Federation seemingly looking for profits through their aspiring ventures (the ISL merge in this case), it may not seem like a completely bad idea considering it costs money to run a successful league. But the primary focus, which should first be on developing football from the grassroot level and building it as a sport of interest in a cricket-dominated country is not being given much thought it would appear. The AIFF has failed in terms of marketing and promotion which if carried out strategically (or flat out aggressively) like the Indian Super League, could have possibly drawn larger crowds to stadiums during the I League matches.

With the country's football governing body not showing interest or empathy towards any one club, now is the time when we can agree that football across the country is in its darkest era.

Shillong, though continues to believe in its dream of developing football without looking into the financial aspect of things face other issues. Lately, the Shillong Premier League and other local leagues have fallen into a state of saturation. Lack of potential sponsors has forced owners to self sustain their clubs with heavy investments, which by no means is a simple achievement unless one is so driven by passion for the sport.

But does this really mean that football is in a state of decay? Most enthusiasts would beg to differ. With Langsning, Rangdajied United, and Royal Wahingdoh pulling out of both the I League and I League 2nd Division, their focus will be more on enhancing local talent. Future leagues may not see too many foreign players representing local clubs but this opens a whole lot of avenues for Meghalaya's promising local talents. This is the perfect time for clubs to stress on their youth development structure which will inspire and motivate a whole new breed of budding footballers from across the state.

When one looks at the game merely for profits, the entire affair can be a shaky one. There's always an element of doubt in one's mind when making or breaking a decision in club-related matters. But when the sport is followed because of one's passion, all that's really important is seeing your club shine above the rest. As is the case with most Northeastern cities, Shillong remains loyal towards football and it appears unlikely that the sport will die anytime soon. I believe.