The Mizo brand of football has now given the country a fairy tale to celebrate. Aizawl football club has become the first club from the Northeast to win the I-League, recognised as the premier football competition in India. Successor to the previous tiol Football League since 2007, the I-League in the past had seen the likes of Dempo Sports Club, Bengaluru FC, Churchill Brothers, Salgaocar and Mohun Bagan. It is thus heartening to see an exciting, superbly skilled crop of Mizo footballers break for once the stranglehold of Goan and Bengal footballers on the country’s topmost club football league. And the manner Aizawl FC won the championship in only its second season will surely be the stuff of football lore in coming years. It had ended up eighth among nine teams on its debut in the 2015-16 I-League, facing relegation to the second division. But a huge stroke of luck came its way in the 2016-17 season with some Goan clubs pulling out of the league due to differences with All India Football Federation (AIFF). Capitalising on this lifeline, Aizawl FC returned in stirring fashion, winning 11 games while losing just three. Coach Khalid Jamil, recruited at the start of this season, also had a point to prove. At the helm of Mumbai FC for eight seasons, the Kuwait-born Indian footballer had been sacked last year allegedly for his defensive and dilatory tactics. However, the free-flowing style with which he made Aizawl FC play, offensive and defensive by turn, has been a revelation. The four players he brought in — Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta from Mumbai FC, Syrian Mahmoud Al Amh and Liberian Alfred Jaryan — all proved their worth and combined smoothly with the local talent. And therein hangs a tale, for this success would never have come without the groundwork put in Mizoram, particularly over the last five years.
Like Brazilian footballers plying their trade in clubs around Europe and farther afield, a swarm of Mizo footballers are making their living in clubs across India. A small state with just 11 lakh people has over 50 players representing different clubs in the I-League alone. Some like Jeje Lalpekhlua and Lalrindika Ralte have become household mes. The Mizoram government has been going all out to lay a sporting infrastructure, spending meagre funds wisely to optimise resources. Six astro-turf grounds have been laid for football, another is coming up in Sairang, and the Mizoram Football Association takes it task of spotting budding talent at grassroots level seriously with regular school football tourneys. It helps that Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla is a former sportsman, his abiding passion supplemented by the commitment of Sports minister Zodintluanga. Thanks to their efforts, Mizoram also has hockey fields, basketball courts and latest track & field set-ups, along with indoor stadiums in all major districts. But the government’s efforts would have meant little had not local organisations and people come forward enthusiastically. Mizoram has its own premier football league, up and running since 2012, sponsored by a local TV channel with just Rs 25 lakh initially. It may still be loss making, with organisers seeking company advertisements and public contributions. Like the European club football structure, the Mizoram football league is organised on locality-based clubs. This has given the clubs a strong local identity; fans turn out in large numbers for their games which are all telecast across the state; local patrons come together to contribute to the club’s budget which stands at around Rs 10-15 lakh per season. The football craze is such that makeshift fields are being cleared in village after village, youngsters with proud parents in tow are seeking out coaching academies. And the results are there for all to see.
In 2014, Mizo footballers won for their state the Santosh trophy; last year, Mizoram made it to the last four stage in the tiols, and this year is in the fils to be played at gpur. Teams from Mizoram in different age groups have been regularly figuring among the top four places in last seven years. But amidst the all-round euphoria over Aizawl FC’s epic run this year, there is a dark cloud on the horizon. Despite emerging champions by drawing with Shillong Lajong and topping the points table, Aizawl FC may well fail to make it to the highest professiol football league next year. And the reason will be money. Talks are on between AIFF and IMG-Reliance to merge the I-League with the Indian Super League (ISL) for the 2018-19 seaon. If it materialises, only clubs with Rs 15 crore or more yearly budgets will make the cut, which will slam the door shut to clubs like Aizawl FC (with barely Rs 2 crore budget) and Shillong Lajong. What is more, those rich clubs that will make up the topmost level of this combined league, will reportedly get to stay there for seven years on the trot. If the ISL brand of big money, glitz and glamour stamp out the joy and passion, the sweat and raw guts that make football ‘the beautiful game’, it will be a huge setback for achievers like Mizoram. Contributions of such states to the cause of football must not be sacrificed at the altar of lucre Indian.