T he first sunrise of this month was accompanied by viral images of the fans of Aizawl FC cleaning the visiting stadium of Shillong Lajong, hours after their team had created history. The actions of these supporters were a mirror image of the humble and polite nature of the I-League 2016/17 champions from the tiny state of Mizoram, who became the first North Eastern club to claim the title, following a 1-1 draw against their Meghalaya opponents on April 30 – and all this with an overall budget the size of the transfer fees of some of the players in the rival ranks.
Relegated last season despite an 8th-place finish, Aizawl FC were reinstated by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) after two Goan clubs pulled out of India’s premier club football division, making theirs a story equivalent to current English Premier League champions Leicester City.
The head coach, Khalid Jamil, though much younger than the Foxes’ titlewinning manager Claudio Ranieri, had also commenced the season on the back of personal failure, as he had been sacked by long-term employers Mumbai FC. In a fairytale turnaround, he is now at the helm of one of India’s greatest underdog stories, with many even touting him as the ‘only person responsible for the club’s success.’
Like any good coach, Jamil preferred to talk about the team rather than himself, during an interaction with us. “Our initial aim was to come in at the top four teams of I- League, but our journey took a new turn and I am very happy with it,” he said, adding “The biggest defining factor for us has been teamwork and team spirit. We have played as a unit, and I believe that has changed our fortunes.”
Ask him if it was the increased attention to fitness that led to Aizawl’s title triumph, and he remains honest in giving credit to his predecessors. “It was never about fitness or training. The previous head coach had also done a very good job with the team, as they had reached the Federation Cup finals last season. It was all about channelising the talent and learning from the experience in the team’s first season in the I-League. The players were very fit when I came here, and foreign additions in the form of Kamo Bayi Stephane, Mahmoud Al- Amnah, and Indian players like Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta have added the necessary stability to give the team a strong shape and balance,” he said.
The former Indian international had been accused of employing defensive tactics, and detractors had previously pointed that out as the reason for his teams’ mediocre performances. But the feat that he has achieved with his new club is almost like Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid from the 2013/14 season – a team that largely fed on counterattacking tactics, but swept past the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid to clinch the La Liga that year.
“My style of play is simple – we look at a particular match and go into it with only one objective, that of winning the game. Depending on the opposition, we do alter our tactics, but we have a lot of attacking players in the team who can score goals even in the most difficult circumstances. This has been our approach all along. If we get a chance to score a goal, we might as well make the most of it,” said the 40-year old about his team, which had the second-best defensive record in the league this season.
Another contributing factor to this Leicesteresque story has been the youth coaching structure in the Mizoram capital. “The club’s youth academy has been doing a great job. Coach Jahar Das has been a part of the Aizawl setup for many years now, and has been training the Under-15 and the Under-18 kids really well. The main focus of the Mizoram Football Association is also on developing grassroots talent, so the whole state as well as the club have been really keen on nurturing the young stars of Indian football.”
“We had young, talented Mizoram players who had played together for long. Their speed and skills are really commendable. The best part about the kids is they play without fear, as they have nothing to lose, which has also inspired many senior players to play with the same mentality, and I believe it has paid off.” Jamil said this much like Sir Alex Ferguson, who was known to promote youth during his time as the Manchester United boss.
State Football Association secretary Lalnghinlova Hmar also took us inside this factory of young players. “We have more than 70 grassroots centres across the state. All the eight districts have pro-active district football associations, which have their own district leagues,” he said, and added, “We already have 17 young lads from Mizoram who are studying in Germany, learning from the very best.”
Though just 20, Ivory Coast international (and the team’s top-scorer for the season) Kamo Bayi seems to have come of age in his debut season in the league. “It has been a great run so far, and I believe the main credit goes to the coach, who has believed in us all along. (But) we are a young team and still small, as compared to all the big names in I- League,” he said.
Even the owner of the club, Robert Royte (who heads TT Royte, one of the top companies in Mizoram, which has interests in construction, fishery and horticulture, among others) was at his honest best while reacting to his club’s incredible year. “To be frank, I did not imagine that the club would reach this level when it was revived in 2011, after more than 12 years of being completely defunct,” he told me before his team’s final match.
The climax to this pathbreaking season has come with a bittersweet aftertaste, however. The future of India’s club football scene seems stuck in a limbo, with the wealthy creators of the Indian Super League (ISL) deeming their eight franchises as the ‘real’ clubs of the country, ahead of a possible merger with the I-League next season. Simply put, Aizwal FC could find itself out of India’s top-tier club football league, while the cash-strapped AIFF maintains a deafening silence.
“It’s like topping the board exams and not being allowed to enter the higher grade,” Royte told a newspaper during the victory celebrations. “How can you be the champion club of the country and still not be allowed to play in the top division? Aizawl will strongly protest this move. It is unfair,” he complained.
Despite proving the merits of a sustainable model for the upliftment of Indian football (over the mindless spending of big bucks), Aizwal stares at a future full of uncertainty. And as you enjoy watching an ageing overseas player participating in an ‘Indian football league’ on TV later this summer, it’s only the fans that cleaned up the litter after the Shillong Lajong game who truly have the right to call this North Eastern fable their own.