Ground: Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati
Owner: John Abraham
Head Coach: Joao de Deus
The story so far…
NorthEast United FC was one of the founding teams of the ISL, and is the only team in the league not owned by a corporate vehicle. Bollywood actor John Abraham submitted the bid for the franchise for the club in association with Shillong Lajong Football Club, and the involvement of the latter club has ensured a strong focus on grassroots and youth development from the region the club is based in.
Much like the way in which FC Barcelona is tied to Catalan identity, the Highlanders are also more than just a mere football club. Instead of representing one particularly city or state, the club is meant to represent all 8 states of north-east India, as the eight stars on their crest indicates. The club’s own website draws attention to the fact that these eight states have often been marginalised in India, despite which the region has produced some of the best players for the Indian national team as well as domestic clubs. NorthEast United FC has positioned itself as a team which has a strong connect with its fans from their home regions, and as a platform for players from the 8 states to “showcase their talents nationally and internationally.”
The club has not had much success yet in the ISL, finishing last in the first season in 2014, before establishing itself as a solid mid-table side with fifth placed finishes in 2015 and 2016. Previous marquee players have included Spanish World Cup winning full-back Joan Capdevila, and Portuguese forward Simao Sabrosa, but they currently do not have any prominent marquee signing.
And yet this could actually turn into an advantage for the club, which has, as mentioned, been looking to build an identity around its own youth players. This focus on youth is reflected in the appointment of Joao de Deus as head coach, who is, in the words of owner John Abraham, “a tactically astute young coach with the track record of honing young talent and playing exciting football.”
De Deus has had some success in bringing through young talent, first as head coach of the Cape Verde national team, and then at Portuguese second-tier side Sporting Clube de Portugal B (Sporting Lisbon’s reserve side) during the last 3 years, where he helped bring through exciting young players like Gelson Martins. The manager seems to have bought into the club’s philosophy and has said that “young players are important in any campaign and will ensure that they fit seamlessly into our setup.”
The club’s colours are a simple Corinthians-esque white, with no adornment, while the away kit is a full red.
Football is extremely popular in north-east India, and the club has a loyal fanbase, which comes as no surprise. NEUFC fans set up the very first website of any kind dedicated to the ISL, and was obviously the first fan website for an ISL team – fans.neufc.club. It’s an excellent resource and well-maintained by its administrators.
Highlanders fans are spread all across the 8 states, and the team has excellent attendances for their matches in Guwahati. Team jerseys sell like hot cakes and can be seen being worn proudly by fans all across the region.
Chances this season…
In keeping with their form over the last couple of seasons, a solid mid-table finish is the most likely result for NEUFC. The team’s play is likely to revolve around a powerful midfield pivot of former Indian international Lalrindika Ralte and current national team mainstay Rowllin Borges.
The team is likely to be built around the two midfielders, with Borges sitting deep and acting as a defensive shield, while Ralte, whose Mizo heritage epitomises the club’s roots, will be the engine in the middle to drive the team forward. De Deus will be looking for them to link up well with Brazilian attacking midfielder Marcinho, signed from the Turkish league, who will be expected to provide some flair in the final third.
The worry for the club’s faithful is likely to be the lack of experience and proven quality in the side outside of their central midfield pairing. The club’s established goalkeeper Rehenesh TP may be the most capped player for the team, but he has a history of high-profile mistakes, including a howler in the I-League last season that cost East Bengal the title. Their striking options are also not particularly inspiring, with a number of foreign recruits who have not had much playing time in recent seasons.
However, if de Deus can drill some discipline into the team, and set them up to play to their strengths, the team should have enough to make it to mid-table. Given the team’s strong midfield, a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 should help get the best out of their key players, while also ensuring a solid enough system defensively – which will be essential when blooding in the youngsters like Abdul Hakku. De Deus will be hoping for a good start to the season, given they’re facing an entirely new team in Jamshedpur FC, coached by Steve Coppell, but this will be complicated by the probable absence of Rowllin Borges from the opener with a knee injury.