Johnny Menyongar says when you do that, you know what to do before the ball gets to you
At 33, Johnny Menyongar is Bengaluru FC’s oldest player. “I don’t want to sound too old,” he smiles. “It’s otherwise a pretty young squad.”
There is a warm serenity about Menyongar, a wise head among the decidedly young ranks of the city’s new I-League club. “Oh, my role is way beyond that of just a player,” he says. “Because there are a lot of young guys that haven’t played in the I-League before, as a senior you have to teach them but also be patient. You can’t get frustrated because once upon a time you were in their shoes.”
For all the excitement over young signings, it is experience that forms the spine of football sides the world over. “I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years,” Menyongar says. “The older you get, the more experienced you get, you use your brain more than your legs. Everybody needs their legs but when you use your brain you know what to do before the ball gets to you. Other people are thinking twice but the game is much easier for you.”
When the season begins next Sunday, with – of all teams – Mohun Bagan the first opponent, the diminutive Menyongar will occupy the centre of Bengaluru FC’s midfield, directing the side’s formidable attacking talent. “This is a new club. You can’t expect us to win the championship. If we win the championship that’s great but it’s a process,” he says.
“Only a fan can be speculating about the results or league position. I’m not a fan. So from my experience over the years, I can say that the only guarantee can be your effort. You cannot guarantee a win.”
Menyongar has played in India for over two years now, turning out first for the Baichung Bhutia-owned United Sikkim in the second tier before moving to Shillong Lajong. It is here that he trained under Pradhyum Reddy, who when appointed the assistant coach at Bengaluru FC sought his old player out.
“Pradhyum told me about this in the off-season. I thought about it. I’ve been to this city once; it’s a nice city. So I felt it was going to be a good move.
“But every part of India is different. Living in the north-east is different from places like Mumbai and Goa. Playing in the north-east is totally different because you have more fans. People have so much more passion over there. In the bigger cities it is not so because they have too many other things going on.”
Menyongar comes from the West African country of Liberia, where he debuted for the national side even before he had turned 16. “I was fortunate to play with George Weah. I learnt a lot during that time. It was just football and school – we’d stay in the national camp for over half the year.”
In the preceding years, the war had forced Menyongar out to neighbouring Sierra Leone. He returned in time for high school and left for college in the United States on a football scholarship in 1998, a year before hostilities broke out again.
“I went back home in 2000 when Charles Taylor was still in power. The national team had a very good run with the World Cup qualifiers and the African Nations Cup. But after our generation left the scene, because there was a state of war for a long time, the country didn’t rebuild. Since 2008, when most of our batch retired, the team has struggled. Since we took part in 2002 in Mali we haven’t qualified for the ANC again.”
Despite this disappointment with the state of affairs, Menyongar speaks fondly of Liberia and its love for football. “That’s the only thing that people know there,” he chuckles. “If the national team is training, we get between 15 and 20,000 people to watch. At games we get 50,000 plus. You have to prevent people from entering the field because you have too many of them.”
Of his good times with the national team, Menyongar recalls a friendly from the spring of 2001, when he lined up against Colombia at the Giants Stadium in New York. A crowd of over 40,000 turned up, with a portion of the proceeds funding the transport of medicines to war-hit Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. “They weren’t all there to watch me,” he clarifies in jest. “It was a great experience but that’s just football. At one minute you can have maybe 90,000 and one minute, like in India, you can be playing before 10,000. But you have to adjust because it’s the same game.”
As the buzz around Bengaluru FC palpably swells in the days leading up to the season, Menyongar appeals for understanding from Indian football supporters.
“Everybody is thinking about how things can improve. But you need strong youth programs over a period of time. It doesn’t happen in one day,” he says. “In India, you guys don’t have patience.”