Beneath the picturesque East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya lies the underbelly of its burgeoning mining industry. Rich in coal, granite, and other rocks which produce limestone, the mineral industry employs the locals and a lot of migrants. And, among those locals on a fine sunny day used to be an 8-year-old Ricky John Shabong.
Muscling up a pickaxe and hammering it to crush stones continuously can be a quite laborious task for someone of his age. But, for the future defensive midfielder of India's youth teams, that was where Ricky learned the tenacity and industriousness from, which is integral for a player deployed in that position.
"I had a difficult childhood. We are a big family, so to help ourselves I used to go to the site and break stones with my father. At that time, I didn't know what was danger. The only thing I knew at that time was money was important. And, because I used to break stones, my little brother and sister were able to go to school," says the 17-year-old.
Football was the only ray of sunshine for the Laitlyngkot native. Hence, after finishing his work, he would rush to his village to polish his trade with the ball.
"I used to work from 10 AM to 3 PM. All of us would sit together and have lunch after which I used to rush to my village and practice football."
For Ricky, the turning point in his life came when he got into AIFF's radar and made it to a U-14 camp.
"I felt very good. My selection in India's U-14 squad changed everything. Before my life was different and after getting into India's youth team, my life became totally different. I got a lot of money and my family is very proud of it. They are all happy. So, I need to continue working hard and play well," says Ricky, who idolized legendary Barcelona midfielder Xavi as a young boy.
Being a member of every exposure tour squads in the build-up to the 2018 AFC U-16 Championships, Ricky and his team's ultimate test came in Malaysia. The Blue Colts went past the group stages with the best defensive record, brushing aside the challenges of Vietnam whilst also holding their forte against Asian powerhouse Iran and group toppers Indonesia.
A win in the quarter-finals against South Korea would have booked India's ticket for the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. But, the team lost its footing in the final ladder.
"After we lost our AFC (U-16 Championship) quarter-final match, everyone in the dressing room was sad and many were crying. We could have played in the U-17 World Cup if we won that match but couldn't. We didn't lose any match in that tournament apart from the quarterfinal.
"We even didn't allow Iran to score against us and had two draws in the group stages. We were also proud of one more thing. All of us gave 100% and we didn't let the opposition score any goal in the group stages."
Ricky would go on to represent India in the U-18 and U-19 levels too. Being away from home from the tender age of 12, he misses his family a lot. But, his team-mates help him get rid of his home-sickness.
"Yes, I miss my family a lot. But what can I do? That is how football works. I have to live like this and keep on moving. (Rohit) Danu, Vikram (Pratap Singh), Givson (Moirangthem), and I are like best friends. We help each other a lot both on and off the field."
For a defensive midfielder like Ricky Shabong, who tidies up the second ball at the centre of the pitch and stays back with the defenders when the rest of the team surges forward, an imminent move to the ISL is only a matter of time. However, he plans to continue playing in the I-League to polish his skills.
"No, no. I am not thinking about playing in the ISL now. Even if I make it to a team, I would sit on the bench only. That won't be of much help to me in the long run. I need playing time for my development."
Pronay Halder, Seiminlen Doungel, Pritam Kotal, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Halicharan Narzary are just a handful of big names who have successfully managed to make their transition from the junior team via the Indian Arrows path. Ricky hopes to emulate them one day.
"A lot of Indian Arrows players have gone on to play for the senior national team. I think if we play well continuously and give our best every day, we can make it to the senior team," he signs off.