Article was originally on Times Of India
When Ninthoinganba Meitei landed in Imphal after an exposure tour to Mexico, he immediately sensed something was amiss.
“Every time it was my father who would receive me, but this time my uncle was there at the airport. I knew some thing was wrong and it was then that my uncle told me that father wasn’t keeping too well,” the India U-17 midfielder tells TOI.
Ninthoi rushed home and hugged his father Manglemb, who was lying in bed, seemingly in pain. Nobody from the Meitei household had let Ninthoi know about his father’s health which was fast deteriorating due to thyroid cancer. Nobody wanted to distract Ninthoi; the World Cup, and his selection, was more important than anything else.
“It was the toughest phase of my life. I couldn’t see my father like that but he promised to come and see me in Delhi for the World Cup. He even took my phone and recorded a message, a sound that you can hear when people cheer at the stadium,” he remembers.
But that message was the last Ninthoi heard from his father. Two months ago, when the India midfielder was with the rest of his teammates in Delhi preparing for another exposure tour, he was summoned home. His father had breathed his last.
His father did not live to keep the promise he made to his favourite child. But the 16-year-old lived up to the promise he had made to his father. He is now in the Indian team.
Ninthoi keeps a brave front but there’s an earlier regret which gnaws away . “I should have allowed him to watch me play some years ago in the Subroto Cup in Delhi. I shouldn’t have stopped him,” he says.
Three years ago when Ninthoi’s school, Infant Jesus School had qualified for the Subroto Cup in the Capital, his father wanted to take time off from his job as a cow herder and make a relatively-expensive trip and see his son in action outside Manipur for the first time.
Strangely , in a 13-year-old’s mind then, it didn’t feel right. .”We belong to a family of strict vegetarians and my father followed it quite religiously. I feared he would stay hungry in Delhi. My mistake,” he says, adding, quietly , “I will miss him for the World Cup, when we play in Delhi.”
Ninthoi’s mother, Meena and his sister say they would dig deep into their savings accrued from selling fish – and buy tickets for Delhi to see him play .It would be great support, but little consolation for Ninthoi -the void left by his father’s death is just too big to fill.
“Honestly , now I fear nothing,” he says, straightening up, “I don’t feel any pressure of playing in the World Cup. The only pressure I ever felt was to make it to the Indian team, just the way my father wanted it. But now…” he trails off taking a moment to wipe off a teardrop.