Football uninterrupted: Nurturing young talents in the time of Coronavirus

Lironthung Lotha and the boys pose for a photo after a practice session. He informs the boys are taught basic hygiene and safety protocol recommended by the government.
Lironthung Lotha and the boys pose for a photo after a practice session. He informs the boys are taught basic hygiene and safety protocol recommended by the government.

Rebecca K Kits
Dimapur | July 8

While the village is yet to bustle into life, 12 year old Allen wakes up by 4:00 am and prepares to head to the village ground where he will be joined by 19 other children for their football practice.

This is an everyday routine for the 20 odd children who are being trained by 22-year-old Lironthung Lotha from Chudi village now permanently settled in Merapani village under Wokha district.

The Coronavirus pandemic has no doubt slowed much of the sporting activity across the globe, but these young boys in Nagaland have found a way to keep their love of the sport alive, all thanks to Lironthung Lotha, the defender from Nagaland who is currently with Roundglass FC Punjab. He has earlier played for Mohun Bagan (U-19 team) football academy, Mohamaden Sporting Club (Kolkata) and Churchill Brothers FC (Goa) to name a few.

The state has no dearth of football lovers, or for that matter, even talented players. However, with little or no infrastructure, aspiring talents are left untapped.

“We have a long way to go in competing with the other states when it comes to sports. We have just a handful of professional players and the aspiring youngsters need our guidance too,” Lironthung shares. “I do not want them to face the same difficulties that I have faced,” he says, on being asked the reason for this initiative.


The kick off

Earlier, when Lironthung would come home for holidays, he would practice football in the village ground. The children would gather to watch him practice and some of them even volunteered to be ‘ball boys’. Noticing their interest in the sport, Lironthung started teaching basic drills.

"I've been very blessed by God to have some of the best coaches around to train and hone my skills as a football player all through my career. Since some kids in my village asked me to give them some tips to help them improve in their game, I was inspired to teach them some things that I have learnt from some of the great coaches," says Lironthung.

Initially, there were around 13 of them. Now the number has grown to 20 and Lironthung offers them free training six days a week. The children, aged between 7 to 13, are trained in the morning from 5:30 am to 6:30 am from Monday to Saturday.

“But the excitement of the kids are so much that some of them arrive even by 4:30 am,” Lironthung says.

“I wake up early and finish all my chores so that I can head to practice,” says Allen. “I am learning a lot of new things every day and I want to learn more so that I can be a good footballer when I grow up,” he adds.

Ten year old Meishek excitedly shares how he and his 7 year old brother attend practice every day. “I like Manchester United and I want to be a footballer when I grow up,” he adds.

For 13 year old Limathung, the training sessions are “fun and exciting.” He shares that he has learnt many new things and the training will help him improve his football skills.


Football during the pandemic

“In these times of COVID-19 maintaining proper safety protocols is important. Fortunately for us (my kids) they have never gone out of state in a long time and the village is also following all the SOPs given by the health department and administration. And since it has been months since I returned from India and never went beyond the boundaries of the village I doubt I pose a risk. Nevertheless I do try to teach the boys basic hygiene and directions given by the government. I feel the most important thing is teaching my boys facts about the pandemic and not all the crazy theories that are all around us,” Lironthung says.

When training sessions started around June 15 this year, they had to make use of bamboo poles and stones as markers. However, in July, his initiative caught the attention of a football fan club in Nagaland who provided training equipment for the children.

“The Manchester United Supporters Club Nagaland provided cones, markers, training bibs, training ladder, footballs, whistles, stopwatch, hand pumps etc, basically everything the children needed for their training,” Lironthung says.

Expressing his gratitude, Lironthung also adds that receiving the equipment made the children more eager and interested. “Now the training sessions look and feel proper and the children also welcome the support that we have received,” he further says.

Lironthung also points out another important aspect for training-diet.

The Naga diet consists of spicy food and players cannot be expected to play after having such food. “I always ask my kids what they ate before practice and regulate practice time accordingly,” he says. He is also trying to provide 2 eggs a week to the children so that they can have proper diet and nutrition, besides the drills and training.


For the love of the game

While the lockdown has given more time for the children to practice, Lironthung says he has always wanted to help and promote young Naga talents.

While he plans to play in the ISL and the Indian team one day, for now, Lironthung says he will focus on the children. “For the moment I'll be with my boys until I go back to my club and will try to arrange something for them to receive training and support in my absence,” he says.