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#TFGtake - What Indian football needs to learn from the passionate Manipuri fans

THE TEA STALL conversations at the heart of Imphal these days all seem to be about one subject.

Take a stroll down the road from the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium, and just by the inter-state bus terminus you'd find working professionals stepping out from the office for a quick snack expressing disappointment that their neighbours had got tickets to the Hero Tri-Nation Tournament's opening game, but they hadn't. For some, the problems were more nuanced. If somebody's got just one ticket, could they bring along a 3 year old daughter, or would she need a ticket of her own?

The people having these conversations weren't exactly hardcore football fans. Yes, they were aware of NEROCA, TRAU, KLASA and would even tell you their full forms. But that doesn't qualify as a "football fan" here. The standards are higher.

They could, of course, watch on TV. Or ignore it like they forget about most I-League matches happening in Imphal these days. But go a little deeper and it becomes obvious why the match tickets have become such hot commodities here.

It's the Manipuri New Year. A state holiday. Part of the fun is to go out with family and friends to enjoy a festival, or a musical concert. Something that makes this a collective celebration.

And that's where AIFF have swooped in and scored a golden goal of sorts. They, along with the Manipur state government, have turned this football tournament into the single biggest festival of this festive season.

Everywhere you go, there's small and big hoardings announcing the fixtures. The local news channels have been running detailed preview segments. Newspapers are regularly carrying small tidbits... which players are coming, who might be fresh enough for the first game, how many kilograms of fireworks will be set off, who will perform in the openin ceremony, which MLAs and ministers will be in attendance.

It's Indian national team's first ever game in the state that's been one of the biggest supply lines for Indian football over the last two decades. It's happening on a holiday. And it's the single biggest cultural event this month.

Everyone who's anyone wanted to be here. Not just to witness history, not just to witness the national team for the first time. But there was an unmistakable element of duty to it. The people of football-crazy Manipur wanted to use this occasion to introduce themselves to all of Indian football. After years of watching their local players leave the state for club and country, it was their turn to welcome them back, and everyone else.

Manipur was finally taking its place of pride in Indian football.

Out of the 23 players in the Indian squad named for this tournament, 7 are Manipuri. Manipur is the state with the largest representation in the Indian Super League; at 45. In women's football, they remain the biggest contributors by a country mile.

This was a day when the fans, the main driving force behind Manipur's success, to do the same for all of India; just like their counterparts in Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai.

And what a spectacle it was. Two hours before kick-off, many of the blocks were already nearly full. The traffic in the bus stand area was unlike any other day, with a bunch of extra buses being scheduled to bring in fans from other parts of the state.

Even half an hour before kick-off, the stadium was full. The simple concrete stands, the kind that AFC would scoff at if this was an official competition, packed more souls than it was ever meant to. Yet, at the back, a couple of rows were standing-space-only. But no one complained. There was only excitement. And the talk in the stands was still that of their friends who were still outside, frantically looking for a ticket.

The official attendance of 29,431 seemed well short of the actual number.

With the hills in the backdrop and salted peanuts being the only snacks, this crowd was a living proof that it doesn't take a rich franchise to develop football culture; all it takes is a sincere effort to make football mean more to people than the sport itself.

A section of the crowd at Khuman Lampak Stadium

And when after the music, a dance performance showcasing a fusion of all the Manipuri tribes' cultural identity and the fireworks the match finally began, the crowd immediately took ownership of the game.

Mexican waves, phone flashlights were there of course. But it soon became clear that this was a seasoned crowd that understood the game. There were cheers when a defender would overlap, or a midfielder moved into position off the ball. A few times during set-piece, when India's defenders were yet to mark some Myanmar player who could be potentially dangerous, there were shouts from behind the goalpost as if to caution about the error.

The criticism also flew out frequently. The moment Sunil Chhetri made his first big error in front of the goal, shouts of "Chhetri out" and "Chhetri change" began and continued throughout the match. Then, Sunil found the net and the goal was disallowed. From that point on, cheeky shouts of "referee change, referee out" were thrown into the mix; as an answer to those who were demanding that Sunil Chhetri should be benched.

When Akash Mishra slipped on the pitch, the whole stadium cursed out the groundsmen. Chants of "India, India" shook the arena, and when some fans stood up to leave early to beat the traffic, others harshly rebuked them. No one was to leave before the game was over.

The match ended 1-0, with Anirudh Thapa, a favourite with the local crowd, netting the only goal of the match. Despite the win and the cheers, the fans didn't seem to be too happy with India's performance. They had expected more. They were unhappy that Myanmar, a team playing for the first time under their new head coach, created some of the better chances and India missed some easy ones; especially Sunil Chhetri. Anirudh Thapa's strike was jokingly referred to as a "subsidy goal"; apparently an in-joke about Manipuri politics.

A capacity crowd at the India vs Myanmar match

One thing was for certain, everyone who showed up enjoyed the match, and relished its historic significance. More than anything else, this match will be remembered for the Manipuri fans' support for the national team, and the fans understood this.

The event, in the end, had become an expression of a united Manipuri identity, rallying around the Indian national team. And anyone who's familiar with the history of this region would understand how momentous that is.

The new AIFF administration has been in office for just over 6 months. They have taken a lot of decisions, announced major plans... but the decision to bring the national team to Manipur will go down as one of their most sucessful decisions of the year.

It doesn't take a world class stadium in Saudi Arabia to raise the profile of Indian football. Sometimes, it's better to look inwards. There are many such pockets in the country where the football culture is so strong and unique that putting the spotlight on them reveals new facets of Indian football that few saw before. These places cherish the national team way more than the metro crowds. And their infectious enthusiasm inspires the fans watching on TV to grow more attached to Indian football.

We need more of this. The roots of Indian football go far deeper than the big cities and it's time we explore them, and show them to fans around the country. You need the roots to be strong if the tree is to grow.

It doesn't take a rich franchise to develop football culture; all it takes is a sincere effort to make football mean more to people than the sport itself.

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