IT'S BEEN SOME TIME since Meghalaya, once called the biggest supply line of Indian football with three top flight clubs and some prominent academies based in Shillong, has made its presence felt in the national circuit.
The once bustling hotbed was starting to fade away from the mainstream with its last remaining top flight club, Shillong Lajong FC, getting relegated in 2018-19 amidst a major ongoing transformation in Indian football that made it difficult for independent clubs with small budgets to stay in the top flight.
However, another club from the state, Ryntih SC, has been trying to step up and fill that void since last year. When the AIFF sought bids for direct corporate entry into I-League 2020-21, Ryntih were one of the interested parties and picked up bid documents, but it didn't make the final cut. In 2021, the club took a different route by entering the I-League Qualifiers.
Ryntih faced Rajasthan United in their first national competition and after a tight battle lost 3-2; an impressive performance given the fact that they're the only team in the tournament with an all-Indian squad, with all but one player coming from Meghalaya itself.
But that's not the only way the Mawlai-based club established in 1998 stands in contrast with the others in compeitition. Not only is it the only club from North East India in the I-League Qualifiers this season, but it's also the only community-owned club in the pack, which comes with its own set of challenges to make it in the current uber-corporatised Indian football landscape.
To get a detailed view on Ryntih SC's journey so far, TFG reached out to the club's General Secretary Manbha K Khongwir, who explained why the club, which has competed only in state level in the past, is stepping up to the national level now,
"After winning few major tournaments in the state as well as in some parts of the North Eastern States, we do see the potential and capacity of the players. We feel that our players can also perform at higher level tournaments so therefore we decided to move forward to get an opportunity to play at a higher level."
Going through the paperwork for an entry-via-bidding is unfamiliar territory for a community club. But that's what Ryntih have been pursuing for a year. And according to Mr Khongwir, the I-League bid from the previous year helped make this year's entry process smoother,
"We cannot deny the fact getting a direct entry into the I-league is a very difficult and lengthy process. But then after getting some hands of experience with our last year's bidding into the I-league, it has helped us to understand where we went wrong and how to rectify the errors that has disqualified us from a direct entry to the I-league. There are some criterions during the bidding process to the I-league which are really difficult to meet considering the current position of the Club. But this year's was entry to the 2nd division is more of a merit system and most of the criterion can be fulfilled with the help of Sports Consultancy in the state."
He also elaborated on the reason Ryntih SC focused on local talent, instead of signing foreign players for a quick boost to their squad's strength,
"The vision of the Club is to promote young local talents and provide them the highest playing platform. What concerns us is their performance on and off the pitch, we believe in our boys that they can deliver during this tournament... For the last 2-3 years most of our players are only playing in the Shillong Premier League, but by participated and won many other tournaments outside the state where big clubs like Punjab FC, Gokulam Kerala, Neroca FC, were also playing in those same tournaments and we also got the opportunity to face them, this has given us confidence to face any opponent during this tournament. Another thing is that 75% of our players have already been a part of either the I-league or the 2nd division I-league."
The club officials of Ryntih take pride in being represented by local names. That's true not only for their players but also for the club's benefactors. Mr Khongwir, talking about the role the community plays in running the club, said,
"Ryntih SC is a Club based from Mawlai Mawdatbaki. We cannot deny the fact that Mawlai in the recent past has been a home of many notable footballers that have made a name in big clubs and with the Meghalaya Football team as well. A sport is a profession which revolves around 4 S namely: Speed, Strength, Stamina and Skill but for most of us we forget the final or the 5th S which is the Support. Community support for a club like Ryntih is very important as we are very much dependent upon their active engagement with us in many ways. We have seen that many football enthusiast and sports lover from all over the state they have come together to contribute and be a part of something big. This is something which is very much appreciated and commendable as never in the past that we have witnessed such a enormous amount of support to a football Club. We do hope that this will also motivate many other sportspersons in the state to reach out at the community level and seek their support."
However, other than the AIFF regulations and the hard work of fundraising as a community club, Ryntih SC had to face another major hurdle on their way to the I-League Qualifiers: the COVID-19 pandemic. Meghalaya observed one of the strictest lockdown rules in the country and this made the prospect of getting a team together and organizing a pre-season much more difficult. Mr Khongwir described the process they went through,
"COVID-19 and the lockdown have hit many occupations and professions from all aspects. But as a team we have decided to find ways how prepare ourselves to qualify and most importantly to train our players for the 2nd division I-league. We have rented a hotel in Shillong as a bio bubble for the players & the coaching staffs and also with the help of the Hon'ble Minister of Sports & Youth Affair, Government of Meghalaya we have been given the permission to practice and train our players at SAI, NEHU Campus as this will prevent the whole team from meeting people or going to crowded places and contracting the virus from others not part of the team."
But now that they have got their foot in through the door, Ryntih SC are looking forward to the next stage in their plan to establish themselves as a notable club in the national circuit: by strengthening their youth development and fielding women's teams as well. Mr Kongwir said,
"Meghalaya is the football hub of North East. We have seen many football scouts come to Meghalaya to pick up some of the young and promising talents from here. As a club we have already charted a plan for the youth development and to set up a football academy at par with other academies in India and also to get the accreditation from the AIFF. This will be soon made available to the public and see for themselves the way Ryntih is setting an example in developing football in Meghalaya... We do have plans to have our own women's team at different categories. But this needs to be working it out from the grassroot level to ensure that the right approach is implemented."
The plan is ambitious indeed, but the management is already facing the age-old issues that community driven clubs have had to deal with in Indian football,
"Meghalaya is a state with no or a negligible corporate presence. As the club move to higher grounds we do need to have a corporate tie up or partnership. But currently the club is still a community based club,and we have faced a lot of complications and hardships in meeting the end needs of the club. And most importantly as a community based club we are finding it very hard in raising funds to match the budget and expectations of the AIFF."
Of course, the club is about to begin its journey down a path that Shillong Lajong, Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United have taken in the past, only to ultimately pull out. When TFG asked Mr Khongwir whether the fate of the other Shillong clubs who have played in the I-League before gives him a pause of concern about what might befall his own club, he replied,
"We will never know the real reason behind their intentions of pulling out of the national level tournament. But having said this as a club we have already discuss the pros and cons and seek out advice from the officials of these clubs in our journey to reach the national level tournament. The vision and destination that we want to reach is still a long way to go, but we will try our level best to reach to our goal."
The emergence of Ryntih SC is being seen by many Indian football fans as a natural occurence. The fact that Shillong's vibrant football culture had no representation in the national stage, they opine, makes it inevitable that somebody will step up to fill that void. But if we've learned anything from Shillong football, it's that it has many clubs with big dreams and big hearts, but not with big budgets. And when these clubs go up against the rich clubs and franchises that dominate Indian football who tend to poach every single promising player that emerges from these small youth oriented teams, remaining competitive becomes a draining task.
Perhaps that's what makes the club's name, which means 'discipline' in the Khasi language, all the more fitting.
Ryntih SC have taken the first few steps towards a place where their reward for success will be graduating to a greater struggle. And that's what makes their journey, and their campaign in the I-League Qualifiers, intriguing to watch for the fans.