The mountainous state of Sikkim has produced many talents for the nation, most notably former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia.
Despite a population fewer than 7 Lakhs, the Sikkim Football Association (SFA) has its hands full in organising tournaments, given the beautiful game is the number one sport in the region.
Supported not only by its football-crazy Chief Minister Pawan Chamling and also other Sikkimese players, who have settled in other parts of the country, football remains widely a cross-community affair in the state.
Presently, there are 25 semi-professional clubs which make up the football league structure in Sikkim. Segregated into three divisions, the bottom league - The SFA 'C' division had 12 teams competing in the 2018-19 season. Divided into four groups with single league round robin and knockouts, the finalists are promoted to the 'B' division.
The 2018-19 SFA 'B' Division was a five-team single league round robin affair. The winners and runners-up are promoted to the Sikkim Premier Division League next season. The bottom two teams are relegated to the 'C' division.
The top-most tier, Sikkim Premier Division League, began in 2011 and its 2018-19 edition started on 21 July. Defending champions United Sikkim FC with State Sports Academy, Boy's Club, Pakyong United FC, Gangtok Himalayan FC, Aakraman XI alongside new entrants SAI Namchi and Unicorn FC make up the eight-team league.
Slated to go on for a month, it will be a single league round robin system with the bottom two teams relegated to the 'B' division. All matches will be played at the Paljor Stadium, Gangtok.
The SFA also hosts three knockout tournaments. The SFA Super Cup is played between the top four in the Premier Division League at the end of the season. The Independence Day Football Tournament is a midseason knockout tournament which features a mix of Sikkim-based and other teams from the North-East region.
The All India Sikkim Governor's Gold Cup, one of the most prestigious invitational tournaments, was founded in 1986 and various teams from different parts of India as well as international clubs have taken part in it. Kolkata's Mohun Bagan are the most successful team with ten titles and are also the defending champions.
Sikkim has only four districts out of which, North Sikkim district has a population density of 10 per square kilometre. There are no intra or interdistrict leagues but Sikkim has a rich culture in community football, similar to that of Sunday Leagues in the UK.
"There are plans to organise an intra-district club tournament this season. All four winners will then get to join the 'C' division so it becomes a 16-team league from 2019-20," revealed Arjun Rai, Joint Secretary, SFA.
Youth leagues and 'Baby League'
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) passed on a directive to each state association to initiate grassroots programme in the form of Baby Leagues and the SFA have been mulling options.
"This year, after the month of August, we are planning to organise Baby Leagues", promised Rai.
The SFA for the very first time organised a junior tournament last season. "We did a U-15 knockout tournament with ten teams but it remains to be seen how we can better it this season", said Rai.
The 2017 SFA U-15 Boys Knockout cup was won by North Sikkim FA Mangan, which hails from the sparsely inhabited North Sikkim district.
Recently, Sikkim Himalayan Sporting Club secured a 2-star academy accreditation from AIFF. This allows the club to field teams in the I-League U-13, U-15 and U-18 tournaments.
Women's football structure
Like most states in India, Sikkim lacks a professional set up for the women's game but 'plans are underway' to organise one, promises the state association.
"There have been various open football tournaments in the village level but we don't have a league structure yet. This season we are definitely organising a women's league", stated Rai.