Op-Ed : Aizawl FC's Magical Run Deserve an Equally Magical Ending
Perhaps it was something more than coincidence that, just over a day after Claudio Ranieri wrote 'my dream is dead', Aizawl FC found themselves smack-dab in the middle of one. Their players must have been pinching themselves in disbelief as they walked off the pitch after an easy 1-0 win over Chennai City FC. A team that was relegated last year, a team that finds itself in the league this term only due to a mix of sheer luck and some uncharacteristic benevolence from the All India Football Federation, is now top of the league. The I-League may be a dot on the map compared to the English Premier League, but if Aizawl manage to script history come May, that story would be no less beautiful than what Leicester City wrote last year.
Their stint at the top of the table only lasted a few hours thanks to East Bengal giving Bengaluru FC a right thrashing, but there is no evidence to suggest Aizawl won't get back up there. Khalid Jamil's men have been a treat to watch throughout the season and that is saying something, as anyone familiar with his Mumbai FC teams over the years will agree. Indeed, we're only half-way through and Aizawl have only scored one less than what they managed in an entire season last year.
If that sounded impressive, then Shillong Lajong's stats in the same department are even more astonishing. They have already scored 15 this season, that's one more than what they managed last year. Only East Bengal have found the net more often than them. And Thangboi Singto has done that while fielding starting line-ups packed with youngsters. The Lajong eleven that started against Chennai City FC last week had eight under-22 players. There's a funny story floating around the Lajong training grounds, that while other teams sweat over injuries, Singto has to run back and check timetables at the local universities. A couple of players did not travel to Chennai last week because, in the coach's words, 'they had exams.'
But more than anything, a title for Aizawl and a podium for Lajong would be a crown for the unheralded capital of Indian football that is the north-east. The shots may all be called from Kolkata and Mumbai and the tournaments may all be in Goa, but it is the north-east that still keeps alive an element of romance in Indian football. They're a throwback to those days when football was not all about money or sponsors, when people would travel to the ground to cheer on that one kid from their street who was getting a start, when a crushing defeat would still mean a packed house for the next game. The derby may still be the most important fixture in Indian football and Bengaluru FC may still be a lesson in how to run a football club. But Lajong and Aizawl are pretty special in a way no other Indian top flight club can be right now.
Those in doubt of that should take a trip to one of Aizawl's home games. The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium sits atop a hill, with a ravine bordering the stadium on one side, so close that a badly mishit ball would be lost forever. The half-finished stadium can hold 20,000 but a nearby water tank and a couple of small adjacent hillocks chip in on match-days, often accommodating on their own what some I-League teams manage in total. And unlike the raging passion that one usually finds in Kolkata, Kerala and Bengaluru, most of the spectators look like they're just happy to be there. They say everything is a bit purer up in the mountains. The same, it appears, holds true for football as well.
During the few hours that Aizawl found themselves on top of the league, it was pretty tempting to imagine an I-League title parade in the city. Aizawl, as small as it is, probably would have to be shut down for the day, for pretty much everyone would be out on the streets. There would probably be music at the Millennium Mall — there always seems to be something going on there. And there won't be an open-top bus ride, not because most streets in Aizawl are too narrow for buses, but because that would be uncharacteristic of the club and its fans. Jamil and the players would have to be on their feet, right in the middle of a stream of red, gently guiding them around the city. Anything else would just be too mainstream for Aizawl FC.
The writer is Sports Journalist with The New Indian Express. He Tweets at visheprasad