Situated in North Eastern periphery of the country, Nagaland is one of the smallest states of India. With population of little less than two million, it constitutes a tiny fraction of India’s overall population. When it comes to football though, Nagaland are one of the big boys in the country. Since gifting the nation with Dr. Talimeren Ao, one of the finest footballers of his generation and the first ever player to captain the independent Indian national team, Nagaland has often produced quality players. However, the absence of major avenues for local footballers to showcase their skills, has more often than not resulted in the exodus of players to other regions in search of brighter opportunities. Moreover, despite the immense craze for the sport among the locals, the state team has, almost always, flattered to deceive on the national stage.
Keeping these facts in mind, a Dimapur-based sports management agency, Four-Four-Two management, in association with the Nagaland Football Association, came up with the idea of the Nagaland Premier League. The decision was taken after a series of meetings in 2011, with the aim of tapping young talents and helping them to grow professionally. The league was to be competed among 10 teams, with each side clashing against each other twice in a season, on home and away basis. The league champions would earn direct qualification to the second division of the I League.
On the 2nd of March, the league was inaugurated with an exhibition match between a Nagaland XI side and Shillong-based top-division club Shillong Lajong FC. The first-round of games kicked off eight days later.
Initially, FC Naga Tornadoes, based in the Zunheboto district, topped the league table, with Barak Flamingoz from Peren district, Life Sports FC from Kohima and Dimapur United close on their heels. As the rounds progressed, the Mughato Sema-coached side continued their dominance with convincing wins over their rivals. Led by captain Ating from the midfield, and with Akum Ao, Abel and Mero combining well up-front, FC Naga Tornadoes performed like a well-oiled machine.
Once the league crossed the halfway stage, Barak Flamingoz emerged as the biggest challengers, as the duo started to slip away from the third and fourth placed sides, Dimapur United and Life Sports FC, respectively. Barak Flamingoz were characterized by their defensive solidity throughout the league campaign. Lacking that star man among their ranks, the Peren-based side more than made up for it with their shrewd tactics. On the other hand, Dimapur United’s title push was catalyzed by their strikers Amir and David. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine Life Sports FC even among the top 8, without the services of their prolific striker, Thangtinlen Haokip. Haokip, without a shade of doubt, has been the find of the tournament.
Until the 15th round, the Tornadoes led the league table, with Barak Flamigoz just a couple of points behind them. However, consecutive draws against Life Sports FC and Dimapur United, in the 16th and 17th rounds, respectively, pegged them down to second place, with Barak Flamingoz taking the initiative at the end of the penultimate round.
The stage was thus set for a final showdown on the 14th of July, with Naga Tornadoes taking on Doyang FC in Dimapur, and leaders Barak Flamingoz heading to Mokokchung knowing their fates were firmly placed in their own hands as they took on Sangpang FC. The Tornadoes kept their title hopes alive with a heavy thrashing of Doyang. Much to the dismay of the Tornadoes fans however, Barak Flamingoz put up a solid performance against Sangpang, comfortably romping to a 2-0 win. As the Peren based side created history by becoming the first ever club to win the NPL title and earning promotion to the second division of the I League, the Tornadoes were left to lick self-inflicted wounds. Despite going through the entire campaign unbeaten and being the most dominant side offensively, FC Naga Tornadoes choked at the tail-end of their campaign, which proved to be their undoing.
At the wrong end of the table lay Kohima-based New Market FC, with a mere four points to their name. Their only win came against Zonipang SA, who finished only a place above them. Among the other also-rans were Dynamic FC (Dimapur), Kohima Komets (Kohima), Doyang FC (Wokha) and Sangpang FC (Mokokchung), who finished fifth, sixth, seventh and eight, respectively.
As the curtains were drawn on the first season of NPL, there couldn’t have been a better advertisement of the sport in the state, with a thrilling finale attracting thousands to the grounds. Social networking sites, Facebook in particular, were the major sources of updates on the league for local football aficionados far away from the grounds. With average attendances in thousands, NPL has definitely been able the eye of the locals. Qualification to the second division of the I League being one of the major incentives of winning the tournament, the organisers have ensured that every club takes the league seriously.
During the four months of the league, many players have made their presences felt in it, with Thangtinlen Haokip of Life Sports FC scoring goals for fun. Haokip, who scored a whopping 24 goals throughout the campaign, has now become one of the hottest properties in the region. The inaugural season of the NPL has set the bar high for the other North Eastern state leagues. With Mizoram Premier League set to start with its inaugural edition soon, other states in the region will hopefully follow suit and induce more professionalism into their leagues.