Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My North East Adventure – 7 Years In The Making

The evening is still so vivid in my memory: It was January 2009, I was in my Brooklyn, NY apartment after returning from my second family/football excursion through India just a few days earlier. Although the jet lag from the trip was still clearly present, as was my "Delhi Belly," I was 100% clear that I wanted to move to India to contribute to the professional and sustainable growth of the Indian football industry.  I had completed my scheduled call with my friend and Indian football industry mentor, Sukhvinder Singh, who assured me that he would put in a good word for me with the owner of Shillong Lajong FC, the club considered the most professional football organization in India at that time, as he felt confident that I could secure a position with them. 

I clearly remember hanging up the phone with so much optimism that I immediately started envisioning myself working for Shillong Lajong FC, creating the club strategy, building programs and leading the team to the I-League championship season after season.  I began sharing all this with my then girlfriend whose first question to me aptly was, “So where is Shillong anyway?” We quickly typed, “Shillong” into Google and about half a second after I hit enter my excitement dissipated into extreme sorrow as I came to find out that Shillong is situated in the far North East part of India closer to Bhutan and Bangladesh. I knew that I was not ready to move to India and live in a place so far away from any city I’ve ever heard of as well as so far from my parents home state of Gujarat.  I quickly typed an email to Sukhvinder letting him know that although I appreciated his offer to support my professional foray into India, moving to what then seemed like “no man’s land” was not the type of India experience I was ready to leave my dream New York City life for.  
Shillong can be found way up in the top right of the map between Bhutan and Bangladesh
Now it’s 7 years later and, after living in India for over 5 years, I’ve finally made my first football trip to the North East of this country. Although I’m still happy that I chose to start my India adventure with Dentsu in Delhi, I must say that the North East of India is a place which should be mandatory for anyone who has ever thought about understanding or contributing to the growth of football in this country as this region is simply extraordinary.   

My trip started with a flight to Guwahati which is the capital of Assam, one of the 8 states which make up the North East of India.  After a long lunch and Indian football fraternity chat with friends from the Indian Super League at North East United FC’s host hotel, we made our way to Indira Gandhi stadium to watch the Indian National team take on Nepal in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match.  Although North East United FC sells out all home matches with 33,000 spectators, I was still happy to see 11,000 passionate supporters turn out to watch India start their very long road to Russia 2018.  The first half was depressing, however India picked it up in the second half and won 2-0 thanks to a brace by captain Sunil Chhetri. The night ended on the outdoor patio of the Radisson where myself, Sukhvinder and some of our friends from the various clubs spent long hours discussing the past, present and future of the industry. 

The next day I took a 2.5 hour drive through the windy hills of Meghalaya to finally end up in Shillong, the place I refused to even explore as a possible home almost 7 years ago.  Within the first few minutes of being in this enchanting hill station, I was already feeling giddy with excitement. The city looks nothing like any part of India I’ve ever travelled to.  The people looked different, a mixture of Nepalese, Bhutanese and Chinese and the general chilled out vibe of the whole city was far removed from the madness I’ve recently experienced in Delhi and Mumbai. 

After dropping off my bags, I quickly headed out to the Polo Grounds to watch Shillong Lajong FC take on a local club in a friendly match.  The way the Polo Grounds pitch is nicely situated within the city makes the view around the pitch as cool as any training ground I’ve ever been to, in any country of the world. I spent quality time with Shillong Lajong FC’s management, mainly in conversation with the club’s young but well respected owner, Larsing Ming, the man who could have been my boss over 7 years ago.  There was a moment during the match when I took stock of my present environs  - enjoying an engaging conversation with the club’s owner, eating delicious local Shillong cuisine of pork and rice, watching Shillong Lajong FC dominate the local club, feeling so at peace high up in the mountains – that I actually wondered if I made the wrong choice to move to Delhi instead of Shillong many years back. 
Shillong Lajong FC's training grounds 
The next 2 days were about the players. Libero Sports currently represents 5 foreign players who ply their trade for either Shillong Lajong FC or the other city club Royal Wahingdoh.  I took the boys out for dinner at the new Irish pub and the next night we ate at the hottest café in town Shillong Café, both of which were as disappointing as the Shillong’s low key nightlife, a fact which was regularly expressed to me by one of our Shillong based players who has lived all over the world and represented his country in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
With some of the players Libero Sports represents - to my right is Cornell Glen who played in MLS for years
I spent the final day of my North East adventure in a small village near the centre of Shillong where the North East United FC grassroots festival was taking place.  It was awesome: 150 of the cutest 10-14 year old boys and girls engaging in a series of football drills with local coaches and coaches representing the ISL club.  More than the football, again what was most pleasing to me was the beauty of the whole scene. The dirt pitch was tucked away in this quaint locality where local men have been volunteering their weekends for the past year to teach local youth how to play football. The scene took me back to a time when I was in the hills of Guatemala, where I experienced the same type of hill-type houses and passion for the sport, an experience which is so distant from the suburban soccer fields I grew up playing on in Southern California, making it so much more “exotic” for me. 

Now I’m back at the Guwahati airport waiting for my return flight to Delhi feeling so blessed to have been able to experience a part of the world which so many people never get to travel to and feeling even more optimistic about the future of football in this country.  Yes, Shillong did seem far away 7 years ago when I was sitting in Brooklyn, NY however now that I’ve met so many wonderful people spread all across this quaint, yet enchanting hill station, it’s already starting to feel like another home, and a place which I’ll continue to visit for years to come.  

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