Underlining the importance of Manipur as a footballing state, its Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh said he will go all out to ensure Neroca FC, currently second in the I-League, is part of the proposed one league that is expected to take shape by the next season.
The I-League, which replaced the National Football League (NFL) in 2007, ran into problems since the emergence of the franchise-based glitzy ISL in 2014.
For the first three seasons, ISL was held separately followed by the I-League but the growing clamour for a single Indian football league forced the mandarins of the sport to run both competitions concurrently as a stop-gap arrangement before going into a merger.
"We have many clubs in Manipur. Neroca have done exceedingly well to qualify for the I-League," he said.
Neroca, since being promoted to the I-League after winning the Second Division League last season, have defied all odds to stake a claim for the title and are now one point behind league leaders Minerva Punjab FC.
The first Manipur-based club to play the I-League had stitched together an impressive nine-game unbeaten run this season which was brought to an end by Shillong Lajong last month. At present, they have three more games to go and are on 28 points. Minerva have a game in hand and are on 29 points.
The CM, however, expressed reservations that the government cannot back a private club wholeheartedly.
"We will support them as much as we can. Our hands are also tied as we cannot support one private club to a great extent," he said.
Cash-strapped Neroca's problem in taking part in one league is the steep participation fee of Rs 15 crore. Previously, I-League heavyweights East Bengal and Mohun Bagan had also vehemently opposed the participation fee idea and went to the extent of approaching West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee who assured full support.
Talking about Manipur football which has over the years given so many top footballers to the national team, men's and women's, the CM urged FIFA and AIFF to support their cause in promoting the sport in the state.
"Manipur football has always been up there and we from the government are trying hard to promote the sport here. We want the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and FIFA to help us in our endeavour," said the 57-year-old, a former national-level footballer.
"We have a lot of talent here and they need to be groomed. So now I had decided to have a regional academy. I have been proposing this since 2007 to the establishment. But nobody was supporting," he said.
"But these days, I have already met Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (Union sports minister) and the secretary of sports and the project has been revived again. I am planning to, if possible, when the Prime Minister will visit on 15th of March for Science Congress, lay the foundation stone of the regional football academy."
Neroca's home turf, the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium, does not have floodlights. Asked whether there is any development on that front, Singh said a budget has been allocated for the same and work will start by March-April.
"We have a budget for floodlights. The tender process is now ongoing. We will start work very soon, maybe by March-April. Money is not an issue. It will take one year," he said.
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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