Imphal: It has been a long time coming but better late than never, the Manipuris must be muttering as the state, one of Indian football’s biggest supply lines, finally gets to host an international tournament here from Wednesday.
Kicking off the tri-nation tourney, also involving Kyrgyzstan, will be India and Myanmar at the Khuman Lampak Stadium.
Fresh from guiding Bengaluru FC to the final of the Indian Super League, Sunil Chhetri will be back to spearhead the Indian challenge against a side that has lost nine out of their last 11 games.
Keeping in the mind the 2023 Asian Cup, India’s head coach Igor Stimac will not want his team to take anything for granted and will expect the youngsters named in the squad to grab the opportunity with both hands and put themselves in reckoning for the bigger battles ahead.
After Myanmar, the home team will next take on Kyrgyzstan on March 28 at the same venue.
Manipur has probably never been as ready as it is today.
Of course, several Blue Tigers players have regularly played in domestic tournament in the state that has provided so many top footballers to the national team over the years.
But, as far as international tournaments are concerned, it’s a first for the football-crazy state.
“Welcome to my home, lads,” said Chinglensana Konsham.
“I’ve been receiving a lot of calls and messages from people back home, ever since it was announced that Imphal will host the tri-nation,” added the India defender.
Football is a sport that is close to the hearts of the people of Manipur. However, midfielder Suresh Wangjam pointed that his home state’s interests in sport go beyond football.
“It’s not just football. People in Manipur love playing a wide variety of sports like boxing, badminton, hockey, weightlifting, and many others,” said the 22-year-old from the land of the Mary Koms and the Mirabai Chanus.
“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,” said Suresh.
“They’ve always come to the stadium to watch me whenever I play in Imphal in the I-League, but this will be a much bigger stage.
“Of course, a lot of relatives have requested tickets, which is quite normal for a football crazy state like Manipur,” he laughed.
Chinglensana believes that it is because top players like Renedy Singh or Gouramangi Singh, who became role models at the national level that the current crop of players from the state have come this far.
“We have all grown up watching Renedy bhai or Mangi (Gouramangi) bhai play for the national team, and now it’s an honour that we are carrying the tradition forward. I myself had idolised Mangi bhai since I was a kid and learned a lot about defending from watching him play,” said Chinglensana.
It’s not just the local players that are excited at the prospect of playing at the Khuman Lampak Stadium.
Anirudh Thapa, who had played at the venue last year for his club Chennaiyin FC in the Durand Cup, also expressed his excitement.
“It’s a surreal experience, playing at the Khuman Lampak. The stands would be filled to the brim, and they would be cheering the team on. Of course, I’ve been on the receiving end of that stick, but it would be great to have them on our side this time round,” said Thapa.
“I hope they come out in even bigger numbers this time, and we play with the full vocal support of the Imphal crowd,” he said.