When Aizawl FC Got India Together

Tuesday, 2 May 2017|Anubhav Roda
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After years of hard work, finally, a club from Mizoram had made it to the top tier of the Indian football structure, much to the delight of the football crazy state. The club from the capital city of Mizoram - Aizawl FC was set to carry the baton of the state in the I-League. But much to the disappointment of the football enthusiasts of the state, they found themselves relegated in their very first season. 

Withdrawal from a few Goa clubs is what it took Aizawl to make it back to the top tier with All India Football Federation trying to make up the numbers. The Mizoram fans were delighted and were elated by the fact that they can pride themselves in their team playing the top division, albeit there were no high hopes.

Come 30th April, there was a huge turnaround. The team from Mizoram was set to play their final game of the season and unlike last year, had all to play for, with them in contention for the coveted I-League title. A draw is all the Mizo side needed and didn’t have just a few thousand fans in the stadium behind them but the whole of India, cheering and praying for Aizawl FC to claim the I-League title.

Something unseen and unheard of in Indian football was on display. Scenes one would only associate with cricket is what Aizawl FC’s dream run brought to life. The entire media had talked about their fairytale and how they could be champions, so much so, that most of the Indian households were now suddenly aware of the I-League, existence of a club named Aizawl FC and the magnificent script they are about to write. After all, their story and their journey deserved all the attention.

The incredible story had seen people fly from all across to play witness to what could be the most special night of football in India. And so when the clock struck 7 in the evening on 30th April, everyone had their minds in Shillong where the fate of Aizawl was going to be decided. For the first time ever, my dad kept enquiring about a game in Indian football and was constantly keeping a tab on the score despite being in transit. 

 

Early on, Aizawl went a goal down and what followed was millions of prayers for Aizawl to stage a comeback. And as the famous saying from a Shahrukh Khan goes, when the World is behind you to make something happen, it does, and this is exactly what happened. Aizawl FC replied with a goal and with the game ending 1-1, Aizawl FC scripted a glorious chapter in the history of Indian football. It wasn’t just that a club from the North-East had won the I-League for the first time; it felt as if the entire nation had won. 

Social Media was flooded with congratulatory messages for the team, people rejoiced and the football fraternity was smitten. For this night was as romantic as it could be in football. Aizawl FC had done the unthinkable and in their journey, forged a bond with millions of fans in the country. 

India finally had their Leicester story and probably, in all fairness, an upgrade on the Leicester story.  Aizawl FC was being run with a  budget of around Rs. 1.5 crores, worth less than Sony Norde’s salary alone. 

Aizawl FC team started off the with a team of players, none of whom found a slot in the National side, the coach was the one sacked last season for lack of ambition and the team was battling to stay up. But as it turned out, a hurt coach with strong dedication and will, turned doubters into believers to seal one of the most dramatic of fates in the history of Indian football.

Most of the players in the team weren’t as tall, a benchmark used by a lot of teams and academies for the development of talent. But boy, didn’t they stand tall against the biggest names in Indian football.

Mizoram had been emerging as a strong footballing state, not just winning the Santosh Trophy but also hosting the popular Mizoram Premier League that saw an abundance of talents come through. All this paid rich dividends for Aizawl FC and the state got huge returns on their faith and investment in football. 

Coming on the back of relegation, Aizawl signed Khalid Jamil, not many would be convinced of, in hope of a turnaround this season. Jamil took no time to assess the side, figure out the shortcomings and make reinforcements. So Albino made way to cover the Goalkeeper’s slot, Rane to move across the wings and Zotea and Ashutosh to cover the defence. So, Khalid Jamil, just like him, wanted to put together a hungry and ‘wanting to prove a point’ squad and one who could compete fearlessly.

The start was good but it started taking shape when they drew against Bengaluru FC and beat East Bengal that provided further belief to the team that they can compete with the big names in Indian football. And slowly, helped by the slip from East Bengal and consequently Mohun Bagan, went all out to try and win the title. 

So while the story of a low budget club winning not just the I-League trophy but also hearts is rife, there is all the reason to present this as a case study, not for the triumph but the way of functioning where the owners gave the coach a free hand to build his team and run with it.