Real Madrid and Spain legend Sergio Ramos once famously said, "Football is to unite, not separate."
A beautiful implication of the World Cup winner's quote was witnessed in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu on Sunday when India beat Bangladesh in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Under-16 Championship final. It was forward Bharat Lairenjam and midfielder Levis Zangminlun, both from the ethnic-violence-torn Manipur, who scored in either half of the game to hand India the title.
When a visibly delighted Bharat ran towards Levis to celebrate the latter finding the net, it was symbolic of the entire country's expectation and hope for Manipur. Because Bharat, who is a Meitei and Levis, a tribal Kuki, did not let the tensions between their communities come in the way of ensuring glory for India at the tournament.
During his post-match media interaction, Bharat, who hails from Bishnupur district’s Nambol, said, "My teammate, Levis, told me before the match that I should score to win the match. And his second goal was a crucial one for India to grab the championship title. I rushed towards him and gave him a tight hug to celebrate the goal."
“Though players belong to different communities in the team, we mingle together happily in good team spirit," he told The Shillong Times. Bharat added that he would like to see Manipur returning to normalcy.
Levis was equally positive in his outlook. "Football served as their (his teammates) common passion, uniting and allowing them to set aside their differences," the report quoted the youngster hailing from Churachandpur as saying.
While Bharat's goal came in the eighth minute of the game, Levis found the back of the net in the 74th minute.
Interestingly, 16 of the 23-member victorious Indian squad were Manipuris. The violence back home didn't deter the boys—11 Meitis, 4 Kukis and one Manipuri Muslim—from working as a single unit. It was Abbas Shingjamayum, the Manipuri Muslim member of the squad who reportedly bagged the “Most Valuable Player” and Top Scorer (with three goals) awards in the championship. “We didn’t talk even an iota about conflict in Manipur, and instead focused on football and team spirit,” he said.
More than 180 people have been killed and several hundred injured since ethnic violence broke out in Manipur early in May when a 'Tribal Solidarity March' was organised in the hill districts to protest against the majority Meitei community's demand for Scheduled Tribe status.
Meiteis account for around 53 per cent of Manipur's population and live mostly in the Imphal valley, while tribals, including Nagas and Kukis, constitute 40 per cent and reside mostly in the hill districts.