Khel Now spoke with NEROCA’s captain about life at the club, NorthEast India and much more.

The recent years have seen a rapid growth of football in the eight sister states of northeast India. States such as Mizoram and Manipur has emerged as torchbearers of the development, which has resulted in grooming players such as Jeje Lalpekhlua, Jerry Lalrinzuala, Lalit Thapa etc.

In the state of Manipur, NEROCA FC just completed their dream run in the I-League, where they finished second this season. While finishing runners-up might not seem like a huge achievement for some, one must know the fact that the side competed in the 2nd Division I-League the season before and was promoted for the first division this season only. One of the biggest reasons for the Imphal-based side’s success was in their custodian, Lalit Thapa, whose performance ensured several points through the two seasons.

Khel Now met the shot-stopper for a candid chat about his career, life at NEROCA and much more.

We started off by asking him about how he was introduced to the beautiful game of football, to which he replied, “from my childhood, I had dreamt of being a footballer. When I was a child, I just kept running away and to play football and my parents didn’t like that as they wanted me to study. I was a bit weak in studies so I left it and decided to start playing football with the local players.”

Lalit Thapa began his youth career at NEROCA FC

NEROCA came very close to winning the Championship in their inaugural year and we asked their captain whether he felt there were any moments in this season when they could’ve done better to help them win the title. The custodian answered, “yes there were a few moments. We lost some games at home. That is not affordable as when we were in the 2nd Division, we never lost a game at home.”

“But this season we lost a couple of games at home, but did better in the away matches,” he further added.

We asked him about how difficult the transition was for NEROCA to come up from the 2nd division to the I-League and how tough the step-up was for them, to which he replied: “The step was definitely tough. As a new club, NEROCA never played outside Manipur as we mostly had been playing small tournaments in native states.

“I-League was a big platform for NEROCA and after winning the 2nd division, coming to the 1st division wasn’t an easy step. Our management had worked very hard for us to be in this position,” he said.

Lalit Thapa played one season in the Indian Super League for FC Pune City, and despite not playing a game has fond memories his experience.

“It was wonderful. The environment was good. When we are in the ISL, it’s a big platform. It’s very different from the I-League clubs because of the facilities they have given us. It’s totally wonderful,” Thapa explained.

Talking about the leagues and their qualities in India, Thapa was asked which of I-League and ISL he feels is superior to another. The NEROCA custodian was quick with his answer as he said, “I think yes they (ISL) have positives. They are bringing the good coaches, giving the best facilities and playing with the top players from around the world. So we can gain a lot of experience from them.”

Thapa rates Gift Raikan as the best Indian coach he has played under

Thapa has played under coach Gift Raikhan for a couple of years and seems to love him as a coach. Talking about his coach, he said: “He is a wonderful guy. He’s more like a brother for us. He is very friendly and we can talk to him openly. He is very open and whenever we need any help from him, we go to him and he helps us. Except for David Platt, I’ll rate him at the top and as the best Indian manager I’ve worked with.”

On being asked on which one he thinks is the tougher league amongst the ISL and I-League, Thapa answered: “I think I-League is the tougher league. In the ISL, people play with some good and experienced players which is why the experience will be easier. Comparing to ISL, I-League is difficult.”

Thapa was asked about his thoughts on playing in NorthEast India so far, to which he replied, “northeast India is good. The crowd is good and the people are passionate about football. It is very different from a few other states where we are there, nobody is there because no one knows football.”

With Indian Football still to reach ‘the next level’ in terms of development, we asked Thapa about what he feels we need to do for us to achieve that goal and he replied, “We need good training facilities. All the clubs and associations need to help the development of players and how they develop.”

“We need to have better infrastructure, better training grounds. Most of the clubs don’t even have their own training grounds and some of them are hard, without grass and dusty. The ground’s condition must be perfect because if the pitch is not good, we can’t perform,” he further added.

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On being asked about his thoughts on the rise of football in Northeast India over all these years, he said: “When I was younger, there were no big teams in Northeast and most of the players opted to go outside the state to play in big clubs. But now I see the youngsters aren’t planning to go out. We have three clubs in NorthEast. So the first team will be to participate in big leagues through these teams and later if they get good offers, they can think about going elsewhere.”

He added: “Many years ago, we don’t have any chance and nobody recognized us in this state because there was no coverage, no exposure in Northeast. But now there are people started knowing and talking about NorthEast football, so there have been big changes here.”

Finally, we asked Thapa about his thoughts about the goalkeeping situation in India right now and on youngsters such as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Dheeraj Singh, who are safe hands in between the posts. He answered: “I think, there are a bunch of Indian goalkeepers coming up nowadays and what we need is good training. We need good coaches to train them.”

He added: “It’s very important to have a separate goalkeeper coach who has vast knowledge and has the capacity to give new ideas and can recognize the mistakes and can rectify the mistakes of the goalkeepers. So until you don’t have a good goalkeeping coach, you cannot perform to your best and know what you are doing good or wrong. If a good coach is there, he’ll observe it and he’ll rectify it so that the goalkeepers can be more consistent next time.”