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Manipuri farmers’ orphan child leads new dawn of Indian football

India U17 captain Korou Singh lived with his football-crazy cousins since he lost his parents. Now far away from the unrest in his village, can he help India qualify for the U17 World Cup for the first time?

Manipuri farmers’ orphan child leads new dawn of Indian football

Korou Singh will lead India as they begin their U17 Asian Cup campaign vs Vietnam on Saturday. (AIFF)


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 17 Jun 2023 10:04 AM GMT

Last month, around the same time as a Salvation Army church was being burned down in Chairel Manjil in Manipur, a 16-year-old boy from the area was having the time of his life playing against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid 10,000kms away in Spain.

Captain of the Indian team which will begin its campaign at the U17 Asian Cup on Saturday, Korou Singh Thingujam knows he has travelled a long way in just a few days.

Speaking from Thailand before the opening match, Korou discussed their group stage opponents and their chances of making it through to the last four - which would ensure a first-ever qualification for the U17 World Cup.

“Japan (June 23) are the defending champions and they are one of the best teams in Asia, we are really looking forward to play against them. Uzbekistan (June 20) and Vietnam (June 17) are also very good teams, so we need to be at our best in all the matches,” he told The Bridge.

Korou’s standout performance from the recent past was in a 4-1 win against Atletico Madrid’s youth side, where he scored the opening goal and set up two more for his teammates, who he calls his ‘brothers’.

The Manipuri trio of Korou, Thanglalsoun Gangte and Danny Meitei - all from Sudeva FC - have been on top of the goal scoring charts for the U17 Indian team in the last couple of years.

“Those of us who have been in the team for a while helped the new players who came in after the U17 Asian Cup qualifiers, but that's what you always expect when you are in a team. We are all like brothers, and we help each other out,” Korou said.

Speaking on the bond between the U17 team despite the troubled times in Manipur, head coach Bibiano Fernandes said, “We are talking every day with those boys and asking them about of the families, their houses back home. They have been together for more than one and a half years.”

2017 - Jeakson Singh, Phil Foden and a terrible tragedy

Living with brothers comes naturally to Korou.

Around the time when Jeakson Singh created history by heading in India’s first ever goal in a FIFA World Cup at the 2017 U17 tournament hosted by India, the 10-year-old Thorou Singh's life was turned upside down.

He was jolted from his football daydreams one stormy day when he got news that both his parents had been washed away in the Manipur river’s high tide.

Having lived with his cousins in the Chairel Mangjil village since then, Korou said he was lucky to have been in a supportive atmosphere all through.

“I was watching those games on TV, and Jeakson's goal was a massive moment. India's first goal in a World Cup, and that too it was scored by someone from my state. That goal motivated a lot of us to play football,” he said.

READ | AFC U-17 Asian Cup 2023: Preview, India Squad, Fixtures

Manchester City’s Phil Foden, who had been one of the stars of that U17 WC six years ago, is Korou’s favourite player, indicating when the football bug bit him.

“All my family members are farmers. When I got selected from the Sudeva FC trials in Imphal, they were very happy that I had found my way in football,” he added.

Now 16, Korou is miles away from the unrest in his native village, where there have been reports of militant bunkers coming up. But he insists his focus is purely on the task at hand - leading India’s long-awaited generation of world-beating footballers.

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