Football is not just a sport in the Northeast…it is a way of life. Without an iota of doubt, the eight states who combine to form the easternmost region of India have produced so many footballers that it is hard to pick up a club in India who does not engage a player from the region.
And then, there is NorthEast United FC, the region’s representative in the Hero Indian Super League. Popularly known as the Highlanders, the club has managed to take the traditional love for football in the region to the next level. In five years since inception, NorthEast United have managed to form a strong group of supporters who have been with the club through ups and downs.
NorthEast United FC did not get off to a good start in their inaugural season in 2014. They won just three matches and failed to qualify for the play-offs for the next three seasons as well. However, despite the unfavourable results, the football community in the region never gave up on their team. The club has managed to bond well with the fans, and this was evident in the numbers that came out to cheer the team last season, despite four disappointing campaigns.
“I always think of the Northeast as the region in India that truly understands football and has this passion for the sport that is unmatched,” said club owner John Abraham.
NEUFC fans had to wait for five years before they tasted reasonable success. Under Dutchman Eelco Schattorie, now with Kerala Blasters FC, NorthEast United qualified for the playoffs for the first time in history, and had it not been for some unfortunate injuries could have even made it to the final last season.
And hardcore fans? They just kept flowing in. The average attendance for home games last season at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati was 13,458. The final home game, the first leg of the semi-final against eventual champions Bengaluru FC, saw a crowd of 21,786 back their team wholeheartedly.
The passion for football in the region was evident in the way 22,788 fans turned up for India’s World Cup 2022 qualifier against Oman at the Indira Gandhi Athletic stadium in Guwahati on September 5.
Football was always popular in this region and now they have a club they can root for. The fact that the club has always backed local talent has struck a chord with the supporters. Most of the NorthEast United’s Indian players hail from the region and have now invested in high-profile players.
In fact, they have the most high-profile footballer to play the ISL this season in former Sunderland and Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan.
A new season awaits the football lovers from the eight states, and under Rober Jarni, the expectation will be even higher.