For a first-time visitor, Imphal may come across as a small sleepy city, but in the context of Indian football, the state capital of Manipur is nothing short of a powerhouse.
In 1989, Kiren Khongsai was the first from the state to play for the national team and ever since, over 50 players from the North-East state have gone on to represent the men’s and women’s national teams.
As a state, Manipur had the biggest contingent in the latest seasons of the Indian Super League (ISL), I-League and Indian Women’s League (IWL).
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Oinam Bembem Devi, Renedy Singh, Gouramangi Singh, and Bala Devi, are some of the biggest names in recent years of Indian football to hail from Manipur. However, the other thing common for these superstars is that they never played a game for India in their own backyard.
Despite being the most prominent supply line for national teams in India, Manipur has so far not hosted any international game. It has of course regularly hosted I-League games and some of the group games of the Durand Cup last year were also held in Imphal.
This is set to change on 22 March (Wednesday) when India take on Myanmar at the 35,000-capacity Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal which also hosts the home games for I-League sides NEROCA and TRAU FC.
India will also play the Kyrgyz Republic on 28 March as part of a tri-nation-friendly tournament. Naturally, the excitement levels are high.
“Eikhoina Yam kuina ngaijarakpani adubu matam pumbagi ningsingduna leihouragani (It’s has been a long wait but we will remember this for years to come),” says Imphal resident SK Meitei who will be attending the match with his whole family.
And it’s no different for the players.
“I remember when it was announced that Imphal will host the tri-nation, everyone in my family was so excited. They could see me play for India in our home town, that’s something special,” Manipur’s Suresh Wangjam told the All India Football Federation (AIFF) website.
For AIFF, it’s a win-win situation. Team India and coach Igor Stimac get some international games at home while the federation takes football to new territories.
Focus on Chhetri
In the larger scheme of things, the friendly tournament is the start of India’s preparations for the AFC Asian Cup to be held early next year. However, given that eight of 23 players called up by Stimac for the upcoming assignment were part of the ISL final on 18 March, it’s quite expected that India would not go in with their strongest starting XI against Myanmar.
“For us, the most important thing is the health of the players because these are friendly games,” coach Stimac said ahead of the match. “These games should serve the purpose of the national team but we shouldn’t be irresponsible to overburden these players and send them back to clubs with injuries.”
While many who took part in ISL final could get a break, it shouldn’t bother the locals in Imphal as Stimac promised, “you can expect many players from Manipur to start the game tomorrow.”
The Manipuri players in the Indian contingent include Chinglensana Konsham, Suresh Wangjam, Yasir Mohammad, Bipin Singh and Naorem Mahesh Singh.
Another player who could expect to start the game is the legendary Sunil Chhetri. Bengaluru FC’s 38-year-old forward played the final but an injury to a teammate and ISL Emerging Player Award winner Sivasakthi Narayanan means the veteran could lead India’s attacking line.
Chhetri was used as a super-sub by Bengaluru coach Simon Grayson towards the end of their campaign after a below-par season for the India captain. Stimac had earlier said that Chhteri “may be playing his last season”.
But knowing the fighter Chhetri is, one thing is guaranteed, whether he’s in the starting XI or on from the bench, the ‘captain, leader, legend’ will give his all. This could also be the first and last opportunity for the people in Manipur to watch Chhetri in national colours.
Myanmar are 159th in the FIFA rankings and should not pose a lot of danger to India (106). They’re currently struggling to pick up wins, having lost 11 of their last 13 games, but have a head-to-head advantage over India. Out of 24 matches, Myanmar have won 11 while India have won nine games; four matches have ended in a draw.
Kyrgyz Republic, 94th in FIFA rankings, offer a stronger challenge.
India vs Myanmar: 6 PM IST, 22 March
Myanmar vs Kyrgyz republic: 6 PM IST, 25 March
India vs Kyrgyz Republic: 6 PM IST, 28 March
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Phurba Lachenpa Tempa, Amrinder Singh
Defenders: Sandesh Jhingan, Roshan Singh, Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra, Chinglensana Konsham, Rahul Bheke, Mehtab Singh, Pritam Kotal
Midfielders: Suresh Wangjam, Rohit Kumar, Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Yasir Mohammad, Ritwik Das, Jeakson Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Bipin Singh
Forwards: Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Naorem Mahesh Singh
Live streaming details:
India’s tri-nation international football tournament will be broadcast live on Star Sports 3 in India and will be live-streamed on the Disney+ Hotstar app/website.
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