Young kids dotted the streets of Assam's Guwahati city on Sunday playing football. They were, however, not out enjoying the holiday, rather they were participating in a protest demanding a field for playing football in this largest city of the state.
Over 500 footballers from across the state took part in a protest rally in the city demanding that at least a couple of fields be allowed for playing football in Guwahati. From former and current national and international level players to children with a fondness for the game participated in the protest.
"There is not a single football field made available by the government for playing football in Guwahati anymore. As a result, coaching has nearly stopped and no tournaments are being organised in the city," Hem Das, president of All Assam Football Players' Association, told PTI. "Our demand is simple, we want the Nehru Stadium to be reopened for football. It should also be allowed in the Judges' Field," he said.
Das said football was allowed in the Nehru Stadium as well as Judges' Field through mutual understanding with cricket match organizers earlier, but for nearly two months now no football is being allowed in these two fields.
Speaking to PTI, Hemendranath Brahma, secretary of Assam Football Association (AFA), said the Association does not have any field of its own, though it has been urging the government for it over the years. He said when Nehru Stadium was being converted into a dedicated cricket ground, the AFA has asked the authorities to provide an alternate field for football, which the latter had agreed to look into.
"If the ex-players had a problem with Nehru Stadium becoming reserved for cricket, they should have objected when it was being developed," he contended.
He also pointed out that earlier both football and cricket, including international matches, used to be played at Nehru Stadium, but it has been discontinued now. Brahma said the Association has submitted a list of 10 sites in and around Guwahati to the Directorate of Sports and Youth Welfare for developing as football ground.
"We don't have information on progress on our proposal yet, but we are assuming that the Directorate is working on it. Our training ground at Bijoynagar on the outskirts of the city is also coming up," he added.
The AFA secretary maintained that football is no longer Guwahati-centred and is being actively encouraged at the grassroots by the Association. "It would be wrong to say that AFA is not working for the sport or the players. We have our boys and girls playing with the national teams, we have been holding more number of matches at the lower levels," Brahma said.
Das, a former national-level footballer, said the absence of the fields was proving detrimental for the career of the aspiring players. He said, "Football can be played by anyone with a passion for the game and the youngsters hope for a job in sports quota later in their career. But if they do not have exposure in terms of matches, they cannot be eligible for the reservation."
A former footballer who participated in the protest said, "We are not asking for scooters or laptops. Our demand is simple, we just want a field to play in Guwahati."
Senior journalist Mrinal Talukdar, an avid sportsperson himself, said, "They are not asking for specialized coaches, dietary supplements or anything fancy. They simply want a field to practice and play." "Football is a non-expensive sport and anyone can play it. We should not deprive anyone from following their passion," he added.
As per the information in the All India Football Association website regarding its Assam affiliate body, there are 2016 registered footballers in the state with 195 players renewing their registration this year. The state has 152 coaches and six coaching courses, besides 955 referees. There are 53 approved clubs in the state along with 27 registered districts, but only 10 playing grounds.