Over the course of Sudeva’s debut Hero I-League season, Tondomba and Lalliansanga Renthlei have become the backbone of a double-pivot midfield that has thwarted some of the competition’s most fancied attacking formations. Now, it’s time to shift to top gear.

Sudeva Delhi FC Media 

The term clutch player — iterations such as big-game player, match day player included — is thrown around often in professional sport. The implication being that the subject in question is trustworthy and responsible enough to put in a strong performance when it really matters. When this phrase is thrown around in football, the image it conjures up is usually of a focussed, physically intimidating player whose concentration rarely wavers. Tondomba Naorem is one such player. But he sends that stereotype to smithereens. 

Meet him ten minutes before the game and you’ll catch him smiling, humming a tune, cracking a joke, perhaps even pulling a prank on a teammate. Meet him a day before and is probably singing a song at the behest of his teammates, entertaining them inside the bio bubble. He is, by a margin, the most personable of anyone in the Sudeva Delhi team and embraces this reputation. Crucially, he will happily be this way right up to the opening whistle, but once that shrill note rings, the clutch is engaged.  

That ability — to switch on when it truly matters — is super important primarily because of the position Tondomba plays in a team. A defensive midfielder with a penchant for a prank and happy to sing at the drop of hat, a rarer combination is yet to be found. 

“I’ve always enjoyed playing a defensive position,” Tondomba says, smiling as usual. His roommate and childhood friend Mahesh Naorem listens in. This is unique too, a close friendship between a skilful, imaginative introverted forward and a destructive, tactically aware, extroverted defensive midfielder. “I used to play left-back, but then an earlier coach shifted me to midfield because I liked to play the ball and I’ve remained since.”

Tondonba is, perhaps, overemphasizing the stasis, considering the way he plays the game, dominating when on the ball and positionally aware to cut spaces when without. Paired with Lalliansanga Renthlei in Sudeva Delhi’s double pivot midfield he has enjoyed a fruitful few games in the I-League so far; the highlight of which was the game against Round glass Punjab FC where he made sure Joseba Beitia did not influence proceedings. His influence and ability to pressure and man-mark the Spaniard was such that, at one point, the midfielder complained to his coach asking to be shifted to the other wing because ‘he is going everywhere I am.   

Tondomba is from Thoubal in Manipur, one of many players from a state that dominates in terms of sheer numbers in the I-League. He started as an academy player in Imphal, moved on to Shillong Lajong in the U-18 I-League in 2015-16 and shone for his home state in the Santosh Trophy in 2017. That Santosh Trophy performance landed him a contract with Imphal big boys, NEROCA. 

He made his debut in the I-League at NEROCA, under the Spaniard Manuel Retamero Fraile in 2018 — against East Bengal no less — and ended the season winning the CC meet with the club, under former India international Renedy Singh. He was declared the best midfielder for the tournament.

Tondomba’s rapid rise is also a great encapsulation of how Manipur football works, and how relatively new entrants NEROCA and TRAU have changed the dynamic in the state. “Manipur has a lot of footballers. You throw a stone and you’ll probably hit one,” Tondomba says, “and obviously NEROCA and TRAU entering the I-League was a great motivation for a huge number of us. It meant that there was an option at home. We didn’t have to travel far and wide just to play professionally.”

And still, Tondomba did. In part because he got too good to stay home. After one season with NEROCA he moved on, to East Bengal in the I-League and despite the club’s underwhelming 2019-20 campaign Tondomba shone in midfield and was signed up by Mumbai City FC, who sent him on loan to Sudeva. And back in the I-League, he is dominating proceedings the only way he knows, smiling, singing and playing hard when it really matters.

Now, facing his old club in a crucial fixture for the season, Tondomba is keen to put in a strong performance. His new club needs the win to keep pushing for a top 6 entry into the next stage. “The thing about professional football is, it’s a team game, but every individual matter,” he says. “I never get fazed by who I’m playing, what is happening to players around me, whether I get to play or not… all that is out of my control. I just want to play, improve and make sure when I am on the ball I’m focussed and ready to deliver. The rest will happen as is.”