Unsung Hero’s Untold Story

Arjun Rai – a player, coach, manager but more importantly, always a footballer

Gangtok, 27 Aug:

Football is played and loved all across the world. Every place we go we are bound to meet those crazy football fans. For them football is everything. This beautiful game would not have been the same without the fans. It’s always boring to play in an empty stadium.

Along with the fans many others have made football into the most popular game in the world. To list them out - the players themselves, coaches, support staff,media and officials. This is what came to mind while writing this piece at this ungodly hour.

Most football officials work behind the scenes and keep a low profile, but their contribution is immense. Without them a team cannot run smoothly. I have, over the years, come across many such individuals who love the game so much that they have dedicatedtheir lives to it.

One such individual is Arjun Rai, the ever smiling Senior Manager of United Sikkim FC. Arjun has been in football for more than three decades now, first as a player and then as an official. Arjun was born on 25 April 1963 at Naya Bazar, Jorethang in South Sikkim to Late DBRai and Late Mrs Nar Maya Rai. Now he lives in Gangtok with his wife Lalita Rai. Arjun has one daughter, Kritika Rai and a son, Rohen Rai.

Arjun loved football since a very young age and those fun games with his friends soon turned serious when he started to play for his school team, Tashi Namgyal Higher Secondary School (TNHSS) in Gangtok. This all boys school has always been known for football and during Arjun’s time they had a very strong team. Arjun used to play as a striker and with THNSS he played in a number of tournaments, the most prominent being the Subroto Cup in 1982. TNHSS had qualified for the tournament after being the Sikkim State Champions.

He also represented the Sikkim team in Sub Junior Nationals. Arjun also remembers with pride the one time he represented his state in the Senior Nationals Tournament "Santosh Trophy". At the time, Boys Club and Zongri Club were the two best teams in Sikkim and Arjun has the distinction of playing for both the clubs.

By his own admission Arjun did not play for very long. Family matters and other things took most of his time but he could never be cut off from the game completely. People like Arjun keep the fire of football burning in the Hills. Selfless individuals, who can go to any length to support young footballers and the game as well. They open clubs, shell out money from their own pockets just so the game remains alive. They don't get anything in return but their passion keeps pushingthem.

Slowly Arjun moved towards Management, he is also a very good coach and I remember here the first time I saw Arjun Rai at Paljor Stadium. He was my good friend Pranai Rai's uncle and calls him Bhai Dada. Along came a man wearing shorts and a sweatshirt from the corner and told us to keep training hard and offered us a few tips as well. What caught my attention even as a young boy was Arjun's positive energy and that infectious smile on his face. Arjun has four brothers and all of them were interested in footballand every Sunday the whole gang used to be at Paljor Stadium for practice. I still remember his elder brother crossing the ball and making us head it. Being close to Pranai even I started calling him "Bhai Dada" but later again changed it to "Arjun Daju".

Arjun became a full time Manager in 2004 and took the Sikkim team to Santosh Trophy. They reached the quarter finals and this is still the best performance by the state in the tournament. Bhaichung was also part of that team. Arjun has been the Manager of Sikkimteam in four Santosh Trophies, one women’s championship, one Junior Nationals and his most recent Santosh Trophy assignment was at Bihar this year.Another feather in his cap came last year where he was appointed as the Manager of Indian Legends team which hadgreats like I.M. Vijayan, JO Paul Ancheri and Bhaichung Bhutia along with a host of other former and current India International Players.

Talking about Bhaichung Bhutia, Arjun recalls that in the late 80s he heard that a very good young player has joined Tashi Namgyal Academy and he along with his friend went to see his game and they were really impressed by what they saw, this boy was special andas Boys Club was in need of some players they quickly took this boy into their fold. That little boy was none other than Bhaichung Bhutia who went on to become the Legend of Indian Football. Arjun never claims he spotted Bhaichung and quickly adds that it washis talent which took him to the pinnacle of Indian Football. After joining Boys Club in a few years’ time Bhaichung was signed by East Bengal after Bhaskar Ganguly spotted him playing at the Governor’s Gold Cup for the Sikkim team. It gave a lot of joy to Arjunas well. The little boy he had seen a few years back was now joining one of the top clubs of India.

Bhaichung never forgot his Arjun Daju and their bond became stronger year after year and in 2002 the two of them along with Bhaichung’s good friend Sherap Lepcha decided to form a club and they named it United Sikkim Sporting Club. Within a year they were promotedto the top division in Sikkim League. By 2010 they started dreaming of taking this team to the I-League and in 2011 United Sikkim Sporting Club was renamed United Sikkim Football Club after registering it as a private limited company which is a requirementto play in the 2nd Division I-League. A few years down the line United Sikkim became the first team to qualify for the I-League from the football crazy state of Sikkim. Arjun counts this as his most memorable moment as he had always wanted top teams of the countryto come and play in Gangtok. The dream came true and within a year some of the biggest names and clubs in Indian Football started to come and play matches against United Sikkim at Paljor Stadium. It must have been surreal for Arjun.

Unfortunately United Sikkim did not survive in the I-League for long but now again work has begun for the I-League with Arjun sending the required letters and documents to All India Football Federation for entry into the 2nd Division I-League.

Arjun is a very jolly person but it was not always a very happy ride for him in football. Once he had even decided to leave the game and concentrate on his work. He is with the Sports Department, but with his family's support he continued and what a loss itwould have been if Arjun had left football. He is very popular with all the players and during my time at United Sikkim I have seen that special bond he had with the boys. Always joking and laughing with them. He would call me to his room for a chat and taking out his phone say, "Should I give a missed call to John Abraham" and we used to have a good laugh. Just recently he had met John in Mumbai along with Bhaichung so he had his number. Another thing I rememberis Arjun struggling to explain things to a Japanese player who had no knowledge of English. Once he said, "This guy will make me forget whatever English I know."

Arjun's love affair with football continues till today and just recently United Sikkim FC won the Sikkim League under his guidance. He is now also with the Sikkim Football Association as their Joint Secretary (III) and plans to put in more effort to promotefootball all over the state. It’ssomewhat sad that a person like Arjun, who has dedicated his life to football, has not got the recognition he deserves. It’s not every day that you come across a person like Arjun who has served the game as a player, manager,coach and official. This shows his love and dedication for the game. We honor and award people from different walks of life for their good work. It’s about time we start noticing people like Arjun as well. He is an unsung hero of Sikkim Football and it willbe disappointing if he remains the same. Atleast for once we need to hear this Hero's song.