Cuttack: Manipur, who are still to have an I-League club, will be looking to make their mark the National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy when they face Tamil Nadu in the semi-final slated for Saturday at the Barabati Stadium.
Despite not having a I-League club, Manipur has now emerged as the nursery of Indian football. Kiron Khongshai, Gunabir Singh, Rennedy Singh, Tomba Singh, Gourmangi Singh - the list of Manipur players stay endless.
It seems the game is in the blood of not only the Manipuris but the entire north, after but of the entire North-East region. After all, the first national team captain of independent India T. Aao also hails from the region, Nagaland.
"When you look around, you will see footballers all over - on the streets, on the fields, on the grounds. The Ball stays an inseparable part of our lives," said Premakanta Singh, Manipur`s assistant coach.
Tamil Nadu coach Syed Sabir Pasha, a former India international, knows Manipur will come hard against them.
"We know they will be nippy and come hard at us. The average age of our side stays 24 and for 85 percent of our boys, this is their first major Championship," he said.
"It`s futile to expect a boy to stick to state team when they have offers from I-League teams. Sadly, we don`t have any I-League team from our state. So the Santosh Trophy stays of utter importance to us," Pasha.
Recalling the golden days of Santosh Trophy, Pasha said: "During our days (in the 90s), it was different. Santosh trophy was all about glamour. West Bengal were the toughest to beat. They had almost the entire India XI line-up playing for them. Nowadays, the concept is different as the tournament is all about development and for us, it stays our I-League."