Aizawl FC: An unlikely fairytale that India cannot ignore
Eight months ago to this date, an uncomfortable silence had set across the North Eastern state of Mizoram. They were not mourning the death of a state leader, nor was there any case of in-fighting; it was the relegation of their most popular football club, Aizawl FC, that had brought about this air of gloom.
Every week, families across the capital city of Aizawl geared up for a visit to the Rajiv Gandhi stadium to support not just a football club, but an identity. Hence, the horrifying prospect of playing Division 2 football shook the very core of a foundation that was built on the love for the sport.
Since 2012, when they were first invited to the I-league Division 2, Aizawl have never registered less than a maximum capacity – that's five years straight. It's a stat that no other football club in the country can boast of, not even the ‘traditional’ heavyweights from West Bengal.
Video Courtesy: azassk youtube channel
From near relegation to title contenders
After the club was defunct for close to a decade, Mizoram-based businessman Robert Royte purchased full ownership of Aizawl FC. He told Sportskeeda, “From July to October in 2016 was the most difficult time for us, and by ‘us’ I don’t just mean the club. I mean the people of Mizoram, as the state doesn’t have any other sporting entity that can showcase their talent on the national level; Aizawl FC is their only source of glory.
“Hence, it would be unfair if I say the fans were unhappy; we were unhappy as a community. It was then we decided to meet the All India Football Federation (AIFF).”
With the ISL and I-league merger looming, a torrential war broke out between Goan clubs and AIFF, resulting in the former’s non-participation. This opened the avenue for a lucky return to top flight football for Aizawl. But the question remained: would a team that managed to score just 16 points in a season sustain the I-league level?
The answer came in the form of a script that every filmmaker would dream of.
With a budget of just Rs. 2 crores, the second lowest in the league, the Redshirts' primary goal was to stay in the first division. However, 17 games later, they are only a single point away from winning the I-league, something the most optimistic Aizawl fan would have never dreamt of.
Ironically, the Red and Gold brigade boasted one of the league’s largest budgets, shelling out Rs. 15 crore on player transfers. Yet, they failed to beat an outfit which is beating all odds under a 'rejected manager' Khalid Jamil.
A relegation survival specialist with Mumbai FC, the Kuwaiti-born Indian coach parted ways with the Mumbai club in uncomfortable circumstances. But now, a club rejected by the league and a manager rejected by a club have come together to produce arguably the greatest fairytale Indian football has ever seen.
Technically, Aizawl had done enough to survive relegation even two years ago, but a new AIFF rule states that any club that is newly inducted to the league is exempted from relegation for two years. The new outfit in question, DSK Shivajians, finished rock bottom, securing the only relegation spot, but since it was their first season, the ominous decision of relegating one of India’s strongest fan bases was taken.
A tool for national and cultural integration
Royte added, “I don’t think people understand how important Aizawl is to the Mizo community. Our strongest fan bases are from the US, Myanmar, Malaysia and across the world. Matches in places like Mumbai seem like our home matches, because all the Mizos there go and watch.
“It’s a matter of pride for a Mizo to play for Aizawl; it’s almost like representing the Army, it’s a similar sentiment. So us being where we are right now is a testament to the state's hard work in growing football."
A decade ago, Mizoram was not even close to being the number one footballing state in the North East. With territories such as Sikkim and Manipur boasting of several national team players such as Baichung Bhutia and Renedy Singh, Mizoram was far lower in the pecking order.
But in 2011, the seeds were planted for an unprecedented germination in the future. That journey has now culminated with Khalid Jamil’s men riding a wave of euphoria that comes with being within touching distance of the title. A draw at Shillong Lajong would be enough for Jamil’s charges to lift the title
Jamil said, “I had no idea about the footballing structure here. Aizawl wanted someone with experience in the I-league and I was looking for a new club, and it was just a marriage that was meant to be. Once you come to Mizoram, you truly understand how this city is in love with football. Not just Aizawl FC, there are small fields and teams across the valley.
“Although this has always been there, our goal is now to create a channel for them. The local league is a strong one, and you won’t believe it but despite being the strongest club in the region, we have multiple teams that have defeated us to win the Mizoram Premier League (MPL). Teams like Chanmari FC, who play division, make sure there is constant competition in the state.”
The state’s footballing growth pattern is similar to that of Kerala. A domestic set-up has successfully created an ecosystem for local players to earn a consistent income, and sustain a professional livelihood. However, none of the local clubs has been counted among the creme de la creme of Indian football.
Kerala Football Federation President said, “During my time as a player, I went to Mohun Bagan and other clubs to ply my trade, and that was the only way to try and become the best. The local league pulled in a lot of crowds, but it didn’t actually transcend beyond state level. The professional footballers earned good money, as the domestic leagues are quite popular. Our Indian Super League (ISL) attendances will give you an idea about it.”
The Mizoram Premier League (MPL) was launched in 2012, with local clubs having little to negligible national recognition. However, a steady base along with eight youth academies, out of which six belonged to Aizawl FC, finally had a stage to showcase their talent.
Eventually, two clubs attained I-league Division 2 status. However, their most surprising and memorable reward was a successful Santosh Trophy campaign in 2014. A youthful squad with primarily local league players successfully defeated stalwarts such as Bengal to lift an unlikely trophy.
This particular victory was an undeniable turning point. Royte said, “One must understand the cultural landscape, as every state is looking for an identity. The community wants to be a part of national growth. For some it’s industrialisation, for some it’s tourism, for us, it's football.
“The Santosh Trophy victory was more like a positive reinforcement of our passion, and now every kid wants to become a footballer. We are lucky that we can provide them with a structure to become one. And if our grassroots level is bringing in players from various parts of the state, and they are winning us national trophies, we are on the correct path.”
For a state like Mizoram, which has often had little to no say in national affairs, success in football is bolstering the people's dreams of earning mainstream recognition. Mavi Lalramchula, an ardent Aizawl supporter, has found a tool of integration through football. He said, “I love football, and I played football growing up in Kolkata. However, you know there are racist stereotypes that we deal with on a daily basis.
“We hear things like ‘go play for China’ on the field, but now we can say we have more national champions than you can even think of. So I think our community’s love for football is actually, unknowingly creating an identity for us at the national level. I have Bengali friends who keep coming and telling me how well Aizawl are playing, and I mostly just nod in sarcasm.”
Mysterious Asian Cup qualifying probables exclusion
The revered local hero in Aizawl FC’s lineup is Brandon Vanlalremdika. With three goals this season, the 23-year-old has travelled the long journey as a member of Aizawl’s first youth academy batch.
In his second I-league season, the two-footed midfielder has essentially realized the Mizo dream of playing frequent top flight football. Stellar performances have seen Brandon match experienced foreigners such as former Syrian International Mahmoud Amnah.
Khalid Jamil’s sudden change towards more attacking, freestyle play has come as a major surprise to his critics. He said, “For me it’s all about the players. Before this I was with a team which constituted me to play a certain way. Here I have more freedom and the kind of players also help.
“I brought in attack-minded players such as Jayesh Rane, who has scored two goals, and Ashutosh Mehta, who has also played well. So I’m getting to form my kind of team. Of course the foreign recruits are the spine of the team.”
Considering all this, Indian national team Coach Stephen Constantine’s decision to not include a single Aizawl player within the India set-up for the Asian Cup qualifying tournament has raised several eyebrows.
In 2015, when he rejoined India, his press conferences repeatedly highlighted the focus on current form, rather than preference towards traditional powerhouses. However, in this particular instance, Constantine seems to have gone against his own philosophy.
Indian football expert and scholar Novy Kapadia wrote, “In 2015, the World Cup qualifiers were selected based on current form. Players such as Rino Anto and Francis Fernandez was selected on form, but this time it doesn’t follow the same pattern.
“Aizawl goalie Albino Gomes, Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta and Lalruatharra all deserved an inclusion. There is no way anybody can deny that they have been the best players this year. There are some positive inclusions from Constantine, but the Aizwal neglect truly is a mystery.”
The entire city gathered in front of their TV sets anxiously waiting for the national team call-ups, one of the few communities in the country that actually does so. However, there was despair as not a single name from their club was announced.
Royte added, “We were left flabbergasted. I think they deserve a chance to prove themselves, they deserve a call-up. We can just work harder from here, but we would really like to know how they were not excluded.”
For a community that has often found itself on the fringes of the national consciousness, this new case of negligence has only added to the feeling of hopelessness. But there's always light at the end of the tunnel, and Mizoram's people are hoping for that light to shine upon their football team soon.
Aizawl FC’s success is in some ways similar to that of Leicester City in the Barclays Premier League. And while it may be a bit premature to compare, there's no denying that the small team's success has had a huge cultural impact.
Whether Aizawl win or lose the title from here, their success has brought smiles to an entire community, which has finally found a collective national identity.