A promise’ to ‘the goal’ sums up Len’s ‘not-a-fairytale’ journey
There are very few Indian families where children are encouraged to pursue a professional career in sports, let alone football. It was not something different with Seiminlen Doungel who is the eldest one among nine siblings in his family.
"It was never easy for my parents to allow me to go for football. I am not from an affluent family and I don't feel shame to say this. My parents had always pushed me to do studies and get a stable government job, just like other Indian parents," Len, as he's fondly known in the football fraternity, stated a day after scoring in the dying minutes against Afghanistan.
Len, who hails from Bunglung village in Saikul hill town, Manipur was attracted to the beautiful game since his wee days and when his parents denied him a football, he went on to make one from plastic straws and started playing with it, indomitable passion which kept him driving since then.
"Football was like my addiction. My parents didn't want me to waste time in playing as building a stable future from playing professionally was a far-fetched dream that time. My dad used to be a defender and he was also very passionate about footballer. But he was never encouraged, so the passion was suppressed," Len continued, "But, I could not let it go so easily. When they denied me a football from a local shop, I made a plastic ball by myself and used to juggle with that for hours. I was only 7 or 8 then. I felt like clinging on to that and I couldn't let it go, even then."
"A PROMISE THAT WAS MEANT TO BE KEPT AT ANY COST"
After Len finished his secondary examination, his uncle Lunkhogin Tuboi, took him to Delhi and eventually, the youngster landed in the JCT Academy in Punjab for a trial session. Sukhwinder Singh, former India coach, didn't take much time to identify the raw talent and kept him in the academy for future.
"Physically, I had to work and that's why Sukhi-paaji asked me to stay in the academy and start working on for future. I was so happy to be one step closer to my promise which was meant to be kept at any cost," an emotional Len rattled.
Although his parents didn't favour his decision to give football a try as profession, that too in his tender age, he persuaded them and made a promise which was indeed a tough one.
"I promised them that I wouldn't come back to my village until I sign a professional contract with a club. It was really tough for every one of us but I knew this will force me every day to put in an extra bit of effort to reach my target. Video calls, internet was not so readily available then and it was tough for everyone. But I hung in there (in JCT) and that phase taught me a lot."
"THE INJURY LAY-OFF & LACK OF MATURITY- COST ME HEAVILY"
At the brink of taking off, Len's career suffered a sudden hiccup owing to an unexpected ankle injury in JCT which muddled his training schedule as well as a professional career too.
"I had to start from scratch once again and it was not easy. JCT coach, Jaggi Singh noticed my honesty and he used to appreciate that. I didn't take a single holiday because I had to fulfil my promises."
After he inked a deal with East Bengal in 2012-13, he finally went back to his village to see his parents and dear ones, after a prolonged gap of 3 years.
He was selected for the India U-19 Team by Colm Toal but eventually, he couldn't make the cut to the final squad. There started his journey with Indian Arrows when he scored two goals against the likes of Mohun Bagan and Salgaocar FC.
“I have some great memories while playing for Indian Arrows and those two goals were definitely one of them. We lost both matches but those goals will surely be etched in my memories forever."
A young mind is fragile and it requires a lot of effort to keep it focused. Although Len got his maiden National Team call-up when he was 19 years old, he hasn't been a regular member of the Blue Tigers family since then. He flew with the India U23 squad for the Asian Games held in Incheon in 2014 and after that, he was called up by the then coach Wim Koevermans for the friendly fixture against Palestine.
"I was ecstatic and honestly, I couldn't believe that I got selected for the India team. But, since then, my journey hasn't been a joyful one and I can't blame anyone else but me for that," the 25-year-old continued, "It was a topsy-turvy journey for me and honestly, I couldn't feel the importance of the tricolour on my chest before. I was young then. Gradually, I realised the worth of being in the National team set-up and it's the biggest motivation for any footballer- to play for the country."
"IT'LL ALWAYS STAY RIGHT AT THE TOP"
After debuting for the Blue Tigers in 2014, he has seldom been called up for the National Team camp but hit the pitch only once, against Kyrgyz Republic in the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 qualifiers in March, 2018 before scoring his maiden goal against Afghanistan in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers at the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Thursday (November 14, 2019).
After replacing Pritam Kotal in the 77th minute in the Blue Tigers' search for the elusive equaliser, Seiminlen injected some much-needed urgency in the attacking third and finally, in the third minute of the added time, he headed the corner from Brandon home to stun the hostile Afghan supporters. The moment could have only been scripted in Hollywood and epitomised in a football field- that’s the beauty of the game of football.
"It'll always stay right at the top. No other goal comes closer to this. I am a strong believer in God and I prayed to him before going into the pitch. The moment I connected and the ball went in, I actually went blank."
"I couldn't actually realise what happened and after a fraction of a second, I came back to reality. I dedicate the goal to my entire family," an elated Len continued.
Moreover, he shared the joy with his entire family and mostly, his better half who has always been by his side through thick and thin. Incidentally, she was an avid cricket fan before.
"My wife was an avid cricket follower just like any other Indian. She didn't have any idea about football but since we met, she started following football and taking interest in Indian Football."
"She has been my biggest motivator. She has always backed me whenever I have been low. When I spoke to her after the match, she broke down. Everyone in our family watched the match. Everyone was glued to the television set and it makes me feel so happy that I, to some extent, could deliver," Len's voice got emotional.
Meanwhile, the raw talent who has been 'immature' before as termed by none but himself, now realises the grave importance of being in the National Team fold and didn’t think twice to reveal who does he draw inspiration from, none other than the maestro -- Sunil Chhetri.
"I know, I have a long way to go and it has just been the starting. If we look up to Chhetri-bhai, probably we can realise how much effort and hard work you have to put in day in and day out to maintain the consistency. The amount of sacrifices and hard yards that he has put in is what we should follow. It is not a fairytale. It has to be the hardcore reality to achieve the dream.”