"The thing about football, the important thing about football, is that it is not just about football." - Terry Pratchett
Renedy Singh, a Manipuri, was a regular in the Indian national football team from 1998 to 2011. According to Sunil Chhetri, he was the best midfielder the country has produced and also the most underrated. He scored 12 international goals in 72 appearances, to go with his many assists. He played for Kerala Blasters in the ISL and also became the first Indian to sign for a Bulgarian club, CSKA Sofia, in 2015.
As the country gears up to host the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, the former Indian footballer visited the homes of Manipuri players who will be playing in the tournament. There are 8 from the North Eastern state, by the way.
The first home he visited was Jeakson Singh Thaunaojam's. The teenager's family, as proud as they were of him, were also in a conundrum. They wanted to watch their young boy in action. But as they belong to a humble background, money isn't easy to come by. And flight tickets to Delhi, where Jeakson would be playing, aren't cheap.
"I went to Jeakson's house to greet the family on Thursday. I learnt that his father is severely ill and the family spends around Rs 8000 per month for his treatment. Jeakson comes from a humble background and these expenses take a toll on the family. In fact, when Jeakson wants to come back home from training, his family would always feel the cash crunch. With poor train connectivity in Manipur, the family would have to bear a cost of around Rs 20,000 for flight tickets. Things weren't any different for the families of Amarjit, Boris Singh Thangjam and others," Renedy said to TOI.
So what did Renedy do? He called up a friend - MLA RK Imo Singh.
On learning about the situation, Singh acted swiftly. Soon enough, the Manipur Government announced a prize of Rs 5 lakhs for all the 8 players and also decided to sponsor two-way flight tickets for family members of these players.
Belonging to a similar background, Renedy knows what it's like to be in a tight spot financially:
"They wanted to travel to New Delhi but couldn't because of fund crunch. It really shook me. Being a Manipuri and a former footballer, I felt responsibility of doing something for these families. So I called Imo and I am thankful that prompt action was taken."
Not just that, the Tata Trust, which runs its renowned Tata Football Academy in 80 different locations in Manipur and Mizoram, also jumped in to provide help.
"We will sponsor tickets for two family members. If the family wants us to sponsor tickets for one or two more persons, we are ready. These families are supposed to stay at Manipur Bhavan. If they cannot find rooms, we will take care of their lodging as well as bear the miscellaneous expenses," said Biswanath Sinha, Tata Trusts Zonal Head for the East & Northeast.
The Trust decided to go one step further, saying that this isn't limited to Manipur. If there are other players whose families require similar assistance, they will look into it.
All of this was possible because of Renedy Singh. You may not know him by name, but you should. He's one of the best men our country has produced and I'm not just talking about football. Renedy once raised Rs 2.5 lakh for a teammate's cancer treatment. He understands, like Pratchett, that football isn't just about football.
To imagine how these humble folk would feel when they see their boys play for the country brings a smile to your face. They come from nothing, but they've made it to the big stage. It's only fair that their biggest supporters, their families, get to be there.
It's stuff like this that makes the beautiful game ever so romantic.