Phurba Lachenpa, goalkeeper for Indian Super League club Mumbai City FC, has made the long journey from this picturesque village and has risen through the ranks to become an important cog in Des Buckingham’s formation.
Football is arguably one of the most popular tourist attractions in India’s northeast. Not only professionals, but also schoolchildren, appear to have a natural talent for the sport. Gangtok is a hotbed of promising young people. It’s not uncommon to see spirited kids engage in friendly exhibitions almost every evening, provided the weather gods spare them in Sikkim’s capital.
A small field just below Sir Tashi Namgyal Senior Secondary School is where boys from the neighbourhood form huddles and lobby the ball around to keep it from hitting the ground. Others try their luck at the unnetted goalpost, breaking out in Cristiano Ronaldo’s iconic ‘SIUUU’ celebration whenever they beat the barehanded goalkeeper.
There are numerous such setups in and around Gangtok, which is also home to the massive Palzor Stadium, which hosts the Sikkim Governor’s Gold Cup, a tournament organised by the Sikkim Football Association (SFA).
While football is still one of the most popular sports in the state, the conditions are not always favourable. Lachen, located over 120 kilometres from Gangtok at an elevation of 2,750 metres, is blessed with a breathtaking landscape as well as some promising football talent. Despite its lack of proper infrastructure, the village has given India a taste of the talent that the land possesses, particularly through one house located a stone’s throw away from the only monastery there.
Phurba Lachenpa, goalkeeper for Indian Super League club Mumbai City FC, has made the long journey from this picturesque village and has risen through the ranks to become an important cog in Des Buckingham’s formation. “My goal is to keep a lot of clean sheets and help the team win a lot of games,” the 24-year-old goalkeeper told hindustantimes.com in an exclusive interview. Mumbai currently sits third in the 11-team points table, with two wins and two draws.
While football comes naturally to Phurba, he began by playing on a small field that was always crowded, even during five-a-side games. When he transferred to North Sikkim Academy, nearly 68 kilometres away from Lachen, his living conditions improved. It was there that his talent was discovered. He honed his skills at the academy, transforming himself into a thorough professional footballer and eventually landing a spot in India’s “biggest club.”
“In Sikkim, I was competing in local or school tournaments.” Then I was approached by Thupden Rapgyal, a representative of the Sports Authority of India, who invited me to the State Sports Academy, which was run by the Sikkim government. I stayed for almost a year before getting to play a match against Tata Football Academy. Gumpe Rime was the goalkeeping coach of Tata Football Academy at the time, and he is now the coach of Reliance Football Academy. So he saw me in that game and took me to Tata Football Academy.
After four years with Shillong Lajong, an I-League club, Phurba was recruited by Snow Leopards, whose official name is Real Kashmir FC. Phurba moved straight from the mountains to the coast and joined The Islanders, where he is now their first choice between the goals.
It was here that Phurba made history, joining an exclusive club that could rightfully boast of being the first Indian club to win a match in the prestigious AFC Champions League. Mumbai’s historic AFC journey was crowned with a second victory, as they finished the season with two victories.
“It was one of the best experiences in my life and for the team, I guess, because we played against the best teams in Asia and the best players in Asia. It has been a great experience at a young age, I got to play in the Champions League, and it has been a great feeling for me and for the team as well.”
“Because, as you know, representing India in the best league makes me and my family very proud.” So far, it’s been a pretty good experience and a good journey,” Phurba said.
Growing up, the goalkeeper, like many others, admired Oliver Kahn, but it was his elder brother who inspired him the most. “He has been my everything because he handles a lot of my stuff, and growing up because of him and my late brother, I developed an interest in football, cricket, and sports in general.”
“So, he used to study outside, he used to play football, and he used to represent Sikkim.” Seeing him in tournaments inspired me to start playing football. I used to see his medals in school, and there was no telecast or TV at the time, so I had to listen to people who played like he did. Fortunately, I used to see his medals around our house. That motivated me to play football and bring medals, to try to win medals in my life,” Phurba said.