Lironthung Lotha (centre) along with his students at a picturesque football ground in Nagaland's Wokha district Credit: EastMojo image

Kohima: Along the Nagaland-Assam border at Merapani village, 22-year-old footballer Lironthung Lotha has been training children with the intention of engaging the ‘youths of tomorrow’ in a meaningful way, diverting their attention from social evils, primarily drugs, that the area is infamous for.

A native of Chudi village, Lironthung’s family is permanently settled in Merapani village which is few kilometres away from Golaghat district in Assam. Following the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lironthung, who is currently with Roundglass Punjab FC, returned to the state. He began the training sessions for children since June this year.

The boys in jersey pose for the lens

Speaking with EastMojo over telephone, he said “It was suddenly planned. During the other years when I returned home for holidays, a few children would come to watch me play and sometimes they assisted me as ball-boys. But I never got the chance to teach or guide them. So, since it is quite a long holiday this time, I decided to mentor children who may be interested to learn football. Initially, 12 of them joined me and now there are 21 of them.”

The 22-year-old footballer said that it is disheartening to see children and young people from his village using alcohol and drugs. “If children are engaged in fruitful activities, I thought that it may help prevent them from the bad influences,” he said.

As EastMojo had reported earlier, drug menace in the state of Nagaland has been a major concern, especially along the areas that share borders with Assam and Wokha district has been battling it for a long time now.

Lironthung and the team during a practice session

While the boys training under him are between 7 and 20 years, he said that over the past months, a few of them who were into tobacco and drug (weed) abuse, gave up their on their habits to maintain physical fitness for the sport. He said: “They have become very dedicated towards playing football.”

Although football is “seasonal”, he said that the lessons learnt from it will be with them for life. “They still have a long way to go. There is a loss when the youths engage in drugs and alcohol,” he added.

“I teach them basic football techniques. But besides the training, there is also fun time for all of us,” he said. Although the initial training period was from 5.30 am to 6.30 am, he said that current timing has been shifted from 6 am to 8 am since the “excited” children would reach his home as early as 4 am for training.

A practice session at Merapani village in Wokha district of Nagaland

After a positive case of COVID-19 was detected around the area, he said that the village has been sealed for sometime due to which the training session was stopped temporarily. While it is likely to resume on Monday, he said that more precautionary measures and necessary protocols will be undertaken.

“Although I am not a certified coach, I am teaching them the basics that I have learned through my professional course and experiences. As a child, I did not have anyone to guide me, so, I want to mentor them in the little way that I can. Football is a very smart game — it’s about playing it the right way, whether it is for 24 hours or 45 mins,” he said.

Lironthung then recalled that as a child, he developed his love for football when he was in Class I and would go the other side of the border in the evening hours to play football. He also said that the thrifted sports jerseys that his mom bought made him wanted to play the game even more.

“My career started from Assam in the neighboring district of Golaghat where I represented the district and the state too. Football is in my blood,” he said. While his parents were initially not supportive of him pursuing football as a profession due to less scope in the state, he said that over time, they have become his biggest support system as they realised his dedication and hard work.

Lironthung was with SAI Golaghat from 2013-17, Mohun Bagan Academy Kolkata from 2013-17, with Mohamaden sporting club Kolkata from 2017-18, with the Churchill brothers from 2018-19 and joined the Roundglass Punjab FC in 2020. He is currently training under coach Curtis Fleming, a former English Premier League player and coach.

22-year-old Lironthung Lotha

As he continues to teach children in football, he said it is a learning process for him as well. “When I play with senior players, I learn a lot from the way they play. Likewise, when I play with the children, I am able to understand their mentality. Children are strong, pure and natural. Each time they question me about how to play in a certain way, it helps me to understand what they are trying to achieve, and that adds to my personal benefit as well,” said Lironthung.

While the initial training were conducted with the use of bamboo modified equipment, he said that the Manchester United Supporters club in Nagaland later provided them with necessary football gear and facilities. Jerseys and football boots were donated by his one of his former clubs, and Naga musician Nise Meruno and friends also provided financial assistance.

On the status of football in Nagaland, he said that in comparison to the other states, even the neighbouring states, Nagaland is “far behind”. He said that there is need to find talents even in the villages where there are “rare and hidden talents”.

“There should be no politics in sports. Otherwise, we will not see the destination that want to achieve. We are late and still sleeping in sports. There are lots of talented players but no opportunity and less scope. So there is need to step up,” the footballer said. He concluded that sports need to go beyond tribes and said: “We are all one as Nagas”.

Lironthung and the team

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