I-League 2017: Aizawl FC's Ashutosh Mehta credits coach Khalid Jamil and fans for club's incredible feat
The Aizawl FC full-back spoke to Sportskeeda about his coach, life in Mizoram, the uncertainty in Indian football's landscape and more.
Last season, Aizawl FC were genuinely in the doldrums. The team from Mizoram had finished eighth in the I-League and had to be saved from relegation by a generous AIFF who decided to reinstate them on account of their "heartwarming performances".
This I-League season, however, Aizawl FC scripted a fairytale for themselves by winning India’s premier football competition as complete underdogs.
Ashutosh Mehta, full-back for Aizawl, has lived a similar story for the past two years. He battled relegation with Mumbai FC for the entire 2016 season and moved from the home turf of Mumbai with Khalid Jamil, his coach for 10 years, and teammate Jayesh Rane, to the unfamiliar territory of Mizoram.
Explaining the rationale behind this move, he said, “Honestly, Khalid Jamil was the only reason we (him and Jayesh Rane) shifted to Mizoram.”
The 26-year-old played in the familiar surroundings of Mumbai's Cooperage Football Ground for most of his professional career and admitted to initially finding it difficult to adapt to his new surroundings, a process made easier by the players at Aizawl and the hospitality of the people of Mizoram.
Ashutosh also credited Jamil for helping him adapt to an unfamiliar environment. Speaking further about his coach, he added, “I have worked with him for a decade. He’s been behind me on and off the field and is an amazing coach.”
By the end of it, Ashutosh had established himself as an integral part of the Aizawl starting XI, with both attacking and defensive contributions.
Last season, Jamil’s Mumbai FC suffered from a severe shortage of goals and this resulted in him earning a reputation as a rather conservative manager. This is in great contrast to the adventurous, attacking football that Aizawl fans have been treated to this season.
Speaking about these contrasting styles of play, the full-back dismissed the accusations of Khalid being a defensive coach by saying, “You have to work with the set of players you have. In fact, many times when I stay back and the team is attacking, sir often tells me to go attack and be adventurous.”
In Mizoram, football has grown as a sport in a big way and now commands a mass following. In a way, Aizawl’s tremendous achievement was made possible not only by Jamil’s surprisingly attacking tactics but also by Mizoram’s fanatical football fans who packed the stands to watch the home team play.
Ashutosh applauded the Mizos for their support, saying that he was impressed by the dedication and passion for the game he saw in the people there.
Ashutosh celebrates his I-League triumph with Aizawl FC fans:
This indicates that Mizoram has a flourishing footballing culture which is vindicated by the fact that almost every I-League team now has a few Mizo players on their roster, maybe with the exception of Churchill Brothers.
Aizawl FC’s starting XI was almost entirely composed of local players. Ashutosh felt that this was no surprise considering the passion of the locals. He also credited the state authorities for their support. “The government has supported football in a big way in the state and this has caused many quality players to emerge from the region.”
What was a dream season ended for Aizawl on a bitter note as news filtered in that the I-League would merge with the ISL with only three I-League teams – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC – eligible to take part in the merged league.
Each of the teams would have to pay a hefty entry fee which Aizawl, relying more on homegrown talent than financial strength, would not be able to pay. Consequently, in another testament to the absurdities of Indian football, the national champions, eligible to represent the country on a continental stage in the AFC Champions Cup, would still be ineligible to play in the country's top tier.
Such events have left championship winning players like Ashutosh in the lurch, unsure of their futures while club president Robert Royte has threatened to resort to extreme measures. It is a sad portrayal of the football administration in the country and Ashutosh said he had no idea what the future held for Aizawl FC.
When asked whether he would move to another I-League or ISL club if an offer did come in, his answer was not that of a champion but instead, a player unsure of his future. “Honestly, I have no clue what is going on. I am just waiting for things to get clearer and let the rules and the format get released. I will base my decisions on that,” he signed off.