A wise man once said that every second is a chance to turn your life around – and Khalid Jamil made the most of every such second in the 2016-17 season of India’s premier club football competition, the I-League. He turned his life around by managing Aizawl FC to their maiden title. It had only been a few months since he had been sacked as the manager of Mumbai FC, after years of mid-table finishes, but he was quickly at the helm of one of the biggest underdog tales in modern Indian sport last month.
Born and raised in the football-crazy Kuwait, Jamil moved to India when the Gulf War broke out. His early footballing lessons involved an under-14 camp run by French international Manuel Amoros, during which he met the legend Michel Platini, who went on to become his footballing idol. His performances at the University level marked him out as a special talent. He played his first game in the 2000-01 season of the erstwhile National Football league with Air India FC, earning seven international caps under the Indian tricolour at the turn of the millennium as well. But an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury and a few transfers later, he decided to hang up his playing boots in 2009 and jumped into management, with his last playing club Mumbai FC of the I-League, as it stands right now.
Despite paltry financial resources, the former Indian international led the Maharashtra club to an 11th place finish out of 14 teams in the 2009-10 season, which was considered a success by many. Mumbai exceeded expectations in the years to follow, with a seventh place finish in 2010-11 and then a best-ever sixth in the 2015 I-League. A year later, though, the club ended its lengthy association with Jamil, opening the door for an exciting new opportunity with the Aizawl outfit. In the 2017 I-League season, Jamil occupied the manager’s office at the Northeastern club that had been relegated the previous season, but had reached the Federation Cup final, and due to the Goan clubs withdrawing, was reinstated ‘on public demand.’
Jamil remains a humble man through all this. During a conversation with us after his club’s title-winning match against Shillong Lajong, he credited the players for the club’s success. “The journey has been amazing, starting from joining the club till this very day. When I joined Aizawl FC from Mumbai, I didn’t know what to expect, but when I met the team I felt that we are in for something big,” he had said. The focus on youth development and the cultivation of a young crop of Mizo players has been the standout of Jamil’s heroics at Aizawl. “We had young, talented Mizo players, who had played together since 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 of our senior players to play with the same mentality; and I believe it has paid off,” he had told us.
The club’s 20-year old highest-scorer for the season, Kamo Bayi, waxed lyrical about his boss at the end of the season, just like many of the senior pros in the team, who have named Jamil as the singular force behind Aizawl’s fairytale season. But, with the future of the club in the dark, due to an impending revamp in India’s club football structure, all we can hope for is that this story doesn’t end like India’s FIFA World Cup qualification in 1950 did.