The north-eastern states of India are known for their immense passion for the beautiful game. Football is the leading game there, and is almost like their religion. A region where football talents are found in abundance, they have been a major supplier of players for the national pool for many years now. India's legendary forward and ex-captain Baichung Bhutia belonged to Sikkim while post independence, India's first national team Captain Talimeran Ao hailed from the north-eastern state of Nagaland.
When the Indian Super League was formed, the organizers invariably decided that the north-east must have their own representation in what is probably India's biggest football league. The immense passion of this region grabbed Bollywood star John Abraham's attention and he decided to co-own the franchise alongside Shillong Lajong F.C, who are one of the many teams playing out of Shillong in the I-League. The franchise will be based out of Guwahati, Assam.
The franchise has named them as NorthEast United F.C. They have roped in Spanish defender Joan Capdevila, who was a part of the famous Euro and World cup winning Spanish sides in 2008 and 2010 respectively, as their marquee signing.
Though not the strongest team, NorthEast United FC franchise has a good blend of youth and experience in their squad. 80 percent of their squad members belong to the eight states of north east. These players are generally known for their high tempo and energetic game style, thus, we can expect fast, quality football from this bunch of players.
Their marquee player is famous Spanish defender, Joan Capdevila, who has vast experience playing on the European circuit. Other than the marquee player, 3 other footballers in the squad have the experience of playing World Cup football for their respective countries.
Greek international Alexandros Tzorvas (Goalkeeper), Trinidad and Tobago World Cupper, Cornell Glen, who had played for I-League side Shillong Lajong F.C last season and New Zealand's Leo Bertos who had been a part of his country's World Cup squad in 2010. Bertos recently joined Kolkata club East Bengal.
Among the Indian players, a few notable names are:
Aiborlang Khongjee- Aiborlang has played in the Indian top tier for several years now. Starting his career at Lajong, Khongjee has also served Indian giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan for one season each. He was particularly impressive for Mohun Bagan in the last season which earned him a place in the Indian national team. This 26-year-old India international's experience would be beneficial for the North East franchise.
Another notable Indian defender in this team is Jibon Singh who came up to the top tier from AIFF's Pailan Arrows team. Jibon has represented India at the U-23 level and has also been a part of India's senior team. This Shillong Lajong lad would play a crucial role in NorthEast United FC’s defense.
Boithang Haokip is one of the most promising young midfielders in India currently. Haokip currently plays for Lajong in the I-League. He was extremely impressive last season and scored 5 goals in 23 appearances for the Shillong club. It will be a great experience for Boithang to play alongside the big names in the ISL and would help him grow as a player. Haokip's talent would be of great use to the franchise.
Goalkeepers: Alexandros Tzorvas, Kunzang Bhutia, Rehenesh T.P
Defenders: Joan Capdevila ( Marquee), Aiborlang Khongjee, Jibon Singh, Massamba Sambou, Miguel Garcia, Pritam Singh, Robin Gurung, Tomas Josl.
Midfielders: Alen Deory, Boithang Haokip, David Ngaihte, Do Dong Hyun, Guilherme Castro, Isaac Chansa, Kondwani Mtonga, Milan Singh, Zodingliana, Leo Bertos.
Forwards: Cornell Glenn, Durga Boro, James Keene, Luis Padilla, Redeem Tlang, Sergio Pardo, Seimenlen Doungel.
Likely XI- Alexandros Tzorvas; Robin Gurung, Miguel Garcia, Aiborlang Khongjee, Joan Capdevila; Milan Singh, Isaac Chansa, Boithang Haokip, Leo Bertos, David Ngaihte; James Keene.
Ricki Herbert has come to India with a bagful of experience. He has managed two of the top sides in New Zealand football, New Zealand Knights and Wellington Phoenix for seven years. Also, his most notable post has been the managerial role of the New Zealand national football team. He was the manager of the national team for 8 long years, from 2005-2013, during when he had guided the team to 2008 OFC Nations Cup triumph and as a result New Zealand played in 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup tournament.
Also under his tenure New Zealand qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which is their second appearance in the tournament. New Zealand performed incredibly well and recorded an unbeaten streak at the World Cup. They came back with 3 points from 3 matches, which included a draw against giants Italy.
Herbert's experience would be of great benefit to the young Indian footballers of NorthEast United FC and who knows, he might guide them to a triumph in the inaugural ISL.
NorthEast United's ownership consists of influential businessman Larsing Ming, who is also the General Secretary of Shillong Lajong F.C and Executive Committee member of All India Football Federation (AIFF) and famous Bollywood actor and star, John Abraham.
John Abraham who is known for his immense passion for the beautiful game joined the venture to own this franchise from Guwahati. John featured in the football movie named Dhan Dhana Goal in which he played the role of a footballer of Asian origin earning his livelihood in the United Kingdom. Also, we have seen John at several football events, most notably during the FIFA World Cups.
The franchise is also being backed very well by their fans, as can be seen by the popularity of their team anthem, We are the 8, composed and performed by famous music artists from the north-east.
How far will they go?
It is very difficult to predict the outcome of the tournament as these are just the early days. As this is the inaugural edition of this tournament, we have hardly any idea about the teams. Thus, a prediction seems to be a tough call. However, given the squad composition, they might just be one of the dark horses for the playoff spots.
Looking at the North East United FC side, we can expect some entertaining football as the local players are known to play fast paced game. Another advantage which this team has is that the core of the team comes from one single club that is Shillong Lajong FC. Thus, the players already have an understanding of each other's game and they know each other well. The team so far is looking good and has done commendably well in their pre-season games.