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Telem Jackichand Singh at the football field in Manipur where he first started playing the beautiful game. Singh played for Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) last season. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Telem Jackichand Singh at the football field in Manipur where he first started playing the beautiful game. Singh played for Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) last season. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Jackichand Singh’s journey: From Manipur village to Mumbai City FC

Indian Super League's Mumbai City FC star Telem Jackichand Singh has come a long way since impoverished childhood in Manipur

Keikol, Manipur: Telem Jackichand Singh is dressed casually in a round-neck white T-shirt and black track pants. The 25-year-old footballer, who played for Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) last season, is at his home in the village of Keikol, 10 kilometres from state capital Imphal.

Hills overlook his bungalow, the first storey of which is still under construction. Ducks laze around in a little pond on the plush and green garden to the right of the house, which is surrounded by rice fields and located 100 metres across the road from a village defence force headquarters. Singh’s Honda Civic sedan is parked outside the house.

Singh wasn’t born into this lifestyle. His parents—mother Telem Ibemcha Devi, a tea stall vendor and stone cutter; and father Telem Manglemjao Singh, a farmer who tilled other people’s land—could barely make ends meet.

At one point, Singh’s mother was the sole earning member in the house, earning Rs300 a day by running the roadside tea stall. She would leave before sunrise at 3.30am and return at 8pm in the evening. “My mother used to be very tired when she used to work at the hotel earlier," says Singh, who speaks a mixture of broken Hindi and English.

“My father didn’t work that much, he didn’t have a (regular) job. We are farmers, my mother was the one who worked at the hotel close by and I used to try to help her as much as I could," he adds.

He earns over Rs60 lakh a year now, thanks to ISL and other football tournaments.

Trappings of wealth

Singh moved to his new house in February. His family—his parents, wife and son—lives on the ground floor. Construction of the first storey has been delayed because Singh is out playing football for 10 months a year and he has to decide the way he wants it to be built. The interview—Mint met him in late April—takes place on the terrace of the house because it’s a quiet place for a conversation.

“I have always wanted a nice house so that I can invite friends and family over," says Singh.

He has also bought two plots of land in neighbouring villages for his father and plans to buy a stall for his mother in Imphal’s Khwairamband Bazaar, an all-women’s market. Singh wants to empower his parents.

“These have been bought with the money earned from ISL," says Singh, who has just returned home after playing for East Bengal FC in the I-League, a football tournament that started in 2007, six years before the launch of ISL.

Singh has played football since he was three years old. He vividly recalls how he used to hold a football while sleeping at night. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
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Singh has played football since he was three years old. He vividly recalls how he used to hold a football while sleeping at night. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Singh has played football since he was three years old. He vividly recalls how he used to hold a football while sleeping at night. “Mera life football hi hai" (my life is football), he says. He would never get tired of playing the game or even ask for food. “Sirf football khelta tha" (I used to only play football).

Soon, he started playing in every local tournament. He has a bunch of rustic metal trophies at home. “I used to play football everywhere at local tournaments in Manipur. I never got a chance to play outside the state."

Singh, who has studied till class 8 in Manipur at the Awang Potsangbam Khullen High School, first went out of Manipur in 2004 to train for enlisting in the army at the Army Boys Academy in Happy Valley, Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. He trained there for five years until 2009.

In Manipur, the army is ubiquitous, a constant reminder of the state’s violent history. Troops of the Indian Reserve Battalion are everywhere. Joining the army is also one of the top professional choices for young men. It’s almost a rule, says Singh. “After 18, everyone has to join the army." In Singh’s case, it was different. He took part in a football trial at the Army Boys Academy and was among the 10 players selected out of 500.

Turning pro

Since 2009, when Singh started playing for Royal Wahingdoh FC, part of the I-League, he has been earning a steady income, says his mother. Royal Wahingdoh FC is a club that entered the third division of the Shillong Premier League four tiers below the top of Indian football’s pyramid in 2007. Eight years later, the club made it to the I-League, and remarkably, finished third in its debut season.

Jackichand Singh with his trophies. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
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Jackichand Singh with his trophies. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Royal Wahingdoh also provided a rich supply of players when ISL was launched—the likes of Singh (who was then part of FC Pune City), Seityasen Singh and Reagan Singh (NorthEast United), Lalchhawnkima (Atlético de Kolkata) and Lalhmangaihsanga, popularly known as Sena Ralte (Chennaiyin FC).

Singh started earning Rs20,000 a month at Royal Wahingdoh and went on to make in excess of Rs40 lakh a year. He was key to Royal Wahingdoh’s promotion in the 2014 I-League, and its finishing third in 2015. Wahingdoh operated on a budget of Rs6-7 crore in its only I-League season. The club no longer exists—it fell victim to financial woes.

The speedy winger’s life changed in 2015 when he was named player of the tournament in the I-League first division season. He won Rs2 lakh and a moped. Soon, he got a call to play for the senior national football team and was part of India’s squad for the World Cup.

“It was a big moment in my career. The same year, I started playing in professional leagues as well."

A player in the Indian football team is paid Rs600 per day. “You don’t play for the money, you play for the country," says Singh.

‘Flies like a rocket’

Singh was one of 10 players shortlisted for the ISL auctions held at the Palladium Hotel in Mumbai in 2015. “I couldn’t sleep the night before the auction. I was clueless about whether a club would even pick me; we didn’t know how much money was at stake," recalls Singh.

He was the first player to be auctioned and was signed by Pune City FC, co-owned by actor Hrithik Roshan, for Rs45 lakh. “I have never had more fun spending money because what we were buying was worth it," Roshan said in a July 2015 interview to Deccan Chronicle. “This man (Singh) has wings and he flies like a rocket," Roshan added. Singh played as a left-winger for Pune.

Last year, he was signed on by Mumbai City FC for Rs40 lakh as a right-winger. This year, he will represent the Kerala Blasters. On 23 July, in the latest ISL player draft, Singh was picked up by the club for Rs55 lakh. In Shillong, he used to play as a midfielder.

“When I was playing for the I-League, I started to build my house; once I got the money from ISL, things went faster," says Singh.

Having Singh in the team was a great experience, says Indranil Das Blah, CEO of Mumbai City FC. “His unassuming nature, tremendous work ethic and positive attitude made working with him, both on and off the field, a pleasure. As aggressive as he is on the pitch, he is equally gentle off it," he says.

Blah says Singh’s sheer talent and hard work had enabled him to make a career doing something he loves. “He’s managed to earn more from one season of the ISL than what his parents ever did. And that’s what leagues like the ISL do: They help in providing an ecosystem in which kids like Jacki get equal opportunities. And if they manage to grab them, then the sky is the limit. Jacki is a living testament to that dream," Blah adds.

Once Singh joined Royal Wahingdoh, his mother stopped running the “hotel".

Singh’s household experienced the first signs of prosperity in 2009. His entry into ISL has made it more stable financially.

I don’t know what the future might hold but hopefully the worst is behind us. We’ve just managed to get some money (because of football) which has led to making a home, having a car and owning some property- Jackichand Singh, Mumbai City FC

“We have seen such bad times in the past when we had nothing. There was just a rented house, and nothing else, no land, no house, no car," recalls Singh.

“I don’t know what the future might hold but hopefully the worst is behind us. We’ve just managed to get some money (because of football) which has led to making a home, having a car and owning some property," says Singh, who got married in 2011 and has a five-year-old son, Telem Civic Singh. The young Singh loves football too.

The league system

Over the past few years, India’s sporting ecosystem has seen the launch and growth of Indian Premier League-style template for other sports. The Champions Tennis League may have collapsed but the Pro Kabaddi League and the Indian Super League have become more stable financially, with steady growth in television viewership.

Jackichand Singh (centre) with teammates at a Mumbai City FC football event. Photo: Mumbai City FC website
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Jackichand Singh (centre) with teammates at a Mumbai City FC football event. Photo: Mumbai City FC website

ISL, owned by IMG, Reliance Industries Ltd and Star India, attracted 16 sponsors in 2016, but efforts to streamline the league structure in Indian football by merging it with the I-League have come unstuck. Nor have the I-League clubs bought into a plan that sees ISL as the top tier of a four-level league. There is likely to be no clarity on this until after the Under-17 football World Cup which is being hosted in India this year. Last month, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the governing body of association football in Asia and Australia, granted ISL official recognition for the upcoming 2017-18 domestic season, meaning the franchise-based league will run separately alongside the I-League.

Still, there’s no denying ISL’s popularity.

In terms of spectators at match venues, in total, 1.28 million people attended the 61 matches that made up the ISL tournament between October to December 2016.

Singh’s focus is on his performance. “Gradually, as my performance gets better, the money will automatically come in. I just focus on keeping my body fit and eating right. I think about football, not the money," says Singh.

Leaving it to the parents

And it’s easy to believe him since he doesn’t take any financial decisions without discussing it with his family. “All the money I make is sent back home. My parents decide about all matters related to money," he says.

Singh has a straightforward rule that he lives by: “My parents’ will and desires are paramount . That will never change. I’m their only son," he says, discussing his plans to buy a house outside Manipur, possibly in Kolkata, where he spends a lot of his time training.

Singh believes in the power of leagues such as the ISL to help discover players like him from nondescript villages.

“A good football player (from a small town or village) wouldn’t have been able to play in these matches had it not been for ISL. It’s the main league now," says Singh, who plans to sponsor jerseys and shorts for the children in his village.

From the days when Singh and his friends used to pool in Rs20-30 to buy a decent football to play in the grounds in Keikol, to rubbing shoulders with international football players, Singh’s journey could well be that of many young, yet undiscovered footballers.

New sports leagues such as the Indian Premier League (cricket), the Indian Super League (football), and the Pro Kabaddi League (kabaddi) have changed the lives of scores of young people across the country. In a three-part series, Mint profiles some of these young people.

Part 1: Thangarasu Natarajan’s rocky road to the IPL

Part 3: Ajay Thakur: At the forefront of kabaddi’s big leap

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