Manipur has produced many sports personalities, from Mary Kom to Saikhom Mirabai Chanu. In recent years, Manipur has continuously produced numerous talented individuals in Indian football, indicating a promising future for the sport.

Achieving India's dream of playing in the FIFA World Cup would be impossible without the contributions of Manipuri footballers. Over the last three Indian Super League seasons, Manipur has provided the highest number of players: 26 in 2019-20, 43 in 2020-21, and 41 in 2021-22.

Moreover, this achievement extends beyond male players, as the number of women footballers from the state is also increasing. Notably, seven footballers from Manipur were selected for the FIFA U17 Women's World Cup in 2022.

The increasing representation of Manipur in football is attributed to the physical abilities of the players and the state's dedication to nurturing football talent at the grassroots level. Football is deeply ingrained in Manipur's culture, with almost every village having its own playground. On March 22, Manipur hosted its first international football match, marking a bright future ahead.

However, amidst this progress, the state faced ethnic violence between the Meitei and Kuki-zo communities. Both these communities have contributed significantly to football and have been part of the national football team.

Unfortunately, the past two months have witnessed over a hundred deaths, thousands losing their homes, and seeking refuge in shelters due to the escalating violence. The rift between the two communities has grown wider, and the state's law and order system has failed.

Consequently, the future of football now seems obscured by darkness, tainted by violence and hatred. The impact of the conflict is evident in the football community, with the I-League team from Manipur TRAU FC unable to practice and participate in the Durand Cup.

The 19-team Manipur State League (MSL) is also facing challenges and dwindling with each passing day. Many footballers are attempting to leave the state, raising concerns about whether it is possible to rebuild trust between these two communities.

Amidst this turmoil, a ray of hope shines in a narrow alley of Kolkata, where six Manipuri footballers—five from the Meitei community and one from the Kuki community—live together, sharing meals, time, pain, and happiness.

They are united by playing for Mohammedan SC, a well-known football club with a rich history spanning a hundred years. In the early 90s, the club symbolized progressive Muslim unity. During our conversation with the players, they expressed fear about their families' situations and disappointment with the government.

They also mentioned rumors that have fueled the clashes. For instance, 20-year-old William Lalgoulien Kuki, an attacking midfielder whose father served in the army, shared, “I grew up in Kolkata but frequently visited my family in Manipur. After my father's retirement, he settled there, and now he and my other family members are on the frontline, protecting their village.”

William also showed photographs of a friend who was once a professional footballer but has now taken up arms. Both Meitei and Kuki footballers acknowledged that football can be a way to build trust, but it cannot entirely bring peace without political willingness.

Football's significance during times of civil war is not unprecedented. Historical examples include the famous Christmas truce during World War I in 1914 and the 2005 appeal by Didier Drogba and other Ivory Coast footballers, which dramatically reduced civil war tensions after the country qualified for the World Cup. Manipur's Chief Minister, Biren Singh, himself hails from a football background and played as a defender.

Now, the question remains: Can he defend the future of Manipur football, and can football play a role in building trust between the communities?

Meitalkeishangbam Roger Khuman (23) hails from the Imphal East district of Manipur and belongs to the Meitei community. Although his village's situation has improved slightly, he is still concerned for his family's well-being.

Meitalkeishangbam Roger Khuman (23) hails from the Imphal East district of Manipur and belongs to the Meitei community. Although his village's situation has improved slightly, he is still concerned for his family's well-being.

Meitalkeishangbam Roger Khuman (23) a Meitei, and William Lalgoulien Kuki (20) a Kuki community, engaged in a conversation during their practice session at Mohammedan SC's ground.

Roger and William practice together. Roger plays as a defensive midfielder, while William as an attacking midfielder. Their positions on the field brought them close not only during training but also outside the ground. The shared experience of playing complementary roles in the team fostered a strong bond between them, both on and off the field.

After their practice, the Manipuri footballers' boots are lined up to dry. Players from Meitei and Kuki communities stay together in one building. This living arrangement fosters a sense of unity and camaraderie among the players, transcending any differences that might exist between their respective communities. The sight of boots drying on the wall is symbolic of their shared passion for football and their ability to come together as a team, regardless of their backgrounds.

William Lalgoulien Kuki (20) hails from Churachandpur district of Manipur, he belongs to the Kuki community. The situation in his village remains unstable, adding to his stress, as his family is on the frontline, facing challenging circumstances.

After returning from their practice, Manipuri players browse their phones in their apartment in Kolkata. During their free time, they relax and unwind, some of them spend their time shopping, mostly for sports equipment, while others meet friends from different clubs, who also hail from Manipur.

Dettol Moirangthem (20) from Imphal West district, who is a Meitei, shows the pictures of his friends from the Kuki-Zo community who play in a different club in Kolkata. “We were together in the same academy for many years. Never felt we come from different communities. We are very close and still meet whenever we get time and opportunity,” Moirangthem said.

Dettol Moirangthem watching the news channel on TV. They do this several times a day. During an old broadcast from his village, he identified a woman as a friend who was talking with an army officer.

Roger Khuman (23), is seen talking with his father on his mobile phone from his apartment in Kolkata on the 29th of July, 2023. Due to the unstable internet situation caused by the ongoing violence in Manipur, video calls were not feasible for Roger so he frequently makes phone calls to his family. Each call brought him a sense of peace and relief, knowing that they were safe.

Meitalkeishangbam Roger Khuman (23) a Meitei, and William Lalgoulien Kuki (20) a Kuki, serve themselves lunch in their apartment in Kolkata after returning from practice.

William Lalgoulien Kuki enters a lift to go upstairs and chat with his friend about their next match.

(from L-R) Meitalkeishangbam Roger Khuman (23) William Lalgoulien Kuki (20), Dettol Moirangthem (20), and Jetli Sorokhaibam (21) watch the news in their apartment. This shared activity allows them to stay connected with the happenings back home, and discuss the impact on their families and communities.

Meitalkeishangbam Roger Khuman and William Lalgoulien Kuki pose for a photo. “We have come here to play football, not to fight. We play football so that we can all stay together and live in peace. In football, you only have friends,” Roger said.

AVIJIT GHOSH is an Independent Visual Journalist based in Kolkata