Not ISL, Not I-League: Nagen Tamang's Bhutan stint a sign of things to come?

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A diminutive striker, who has played in the I-League before, has taken a route that many may like to follow in the future.

An Indian striker scored the winner in his team's 4-3 victory in a top division foreign league on Sunday afternoon, helping the outfit retain the second place in the points table.

Even Indian football aficionados may struggle to get the context readily, but the fact remains that Nagen Tamang, an out-of-favour Indian striker who had played for a couple of I-League sides in the recent past is taking the Bhutan National League by storm. The Darjeeling boy scored the winner for his team Transport United last weekend as the team remained tied on the top of the table in terms of points with the league reaching its halfway mark. 

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In footballing sense, this is no major achievement. Ever since their inclusion in the FIFA Ranking, Bhutan had remained stuck at the bottom, before two victories against Sri Lanka pulled them higher a couple of years back. Describing the country's club football scene as nascent can be counted as an exaggeration by many, with only six teams competing in the premier football league.

Against such a back-drop, Tamang has shown prudence to take up an assignment in the Kingdom and has become an instant hit. In the first five matches of the campaign, he has scored once and made five assists, playing a role in 50 percent of his side's 12 goals so far. He has been a regular face in the Indian football circuit for the last half-decade, having represented Royal Wahingdoh in their breakaway season, other than playing for the likes of Mohammedan Sporting, Rangdajied United and Southern Samity.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has provided more exposure to the footballers from the continent, coming up with regulations on Asian foreigners in the club squads. The I-League clubs, for example, now need to sign at least two Asians to fill their quota of six foreigners.

While these rules have resulted in a number of mediocre footballers from the continent making their way into the top-flight Indian league, the local footballers have not been able to reap the same dividends. One major reason behind that is the high pay cheques even second-rung professionals receive here, while footballers from war-ravaged Middle-East countries made up a significant chunk of the Asian foreigners in many leagues. 

However, as India try to claw back to the top 10 of the continent, Indian footballers who do not find a spot in the ISL or the I-League will increasingly find it beneficial to hear offers from other Asian countries, where they can become match-winners and create their own set of followers  - like the way Ryuji Sueoka had done in India. While it's difficult to name many current players who can turn out to be match-winners overseas, the success of Tamang shows the standard is pretty low.

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Also, it may make monetary sense as well. Top Indian players moving abroad have always had to take a pay-cut, with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu being the most recent example. In the lower tier, however the economics may pan out the opposite way, as Tamang mentions.

"I am getting a six-digit salary per month, which is quite good if you consider remunerations of other players here. Also it's better than what most footballers earn in second division I-League," he told Goal on Sunday. It's also significantly higher than the price tags of many youngsters in the recent ISL draft.

While the small leap of faith taken by him has the ability to become a new trendsetter in Indian football, Tamang is eyeing continental championship for his team. "If we win the league, we will play the AFC Cup play-offs. We are level on points, so I think we can do it," he said.

Except for Bhaichung Bhutia's short stints at Perak and Selangor in Malaysia a decade back, Indian footballers have never enjoyed first team football consistently in the Asian countries and whether that demand rises or not in the next few years, will help us assessing how well-founded are the claims of India becoming a power to reckon with in Asian football.

 

 

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