The clock was close to striking 85 minutes and in from amongst the mist and the rain rose Zotea Ralte. As the ball first grazed his head and then nestled into the back of the net, everyone from the ball boy behind the goal to the journalist covering the game at Bangalore knew they were witnessing the birth of a historic moment.
The moment finally did come a week later in Shillong when Aizawl FC realised a dream that many in the North East of India didn’t even know existed. As the final whistle blew at Shillong on the 30th of April, 2017, fans in the stadium came pouring out onto the pitch, enveloping the players who were now the new superstars in the regions.
On their return to Mizoram, Aizawl got a fitting reception from their expectant fans as they clogged the city lanes and honked with much fervour, creating a festive gridlock.
As the historic 2017 version of the I-League passed by, I got to witness many a magical sight which combined to form one colourful, eclectic memory. Only this time, for the first time in a number of years, the colour red was prominent. The shade of blue was, however, faded.
This has been a “different season” for everyone associated with Bengaluru FC and none more so than Eugeneson Lyngdoh. The Southern Eagles - after starting the I-League season with three wins on the trot - had to endure what eventually turned out to be their biggest acid test. A run of eight games without a win in the league saw Albert Roca’s men completely out of contention for the title for the first in their four years of existence.
And during this period we saw something that we hadn’t in the last three years – Eugeneson Lyngdoh nowhere near the middle of the park for the Steelmen. The man from Meghalaya looked like an overqualified benchwarmer for Roca as the Spaniard failed to combine him with his illustrious plans.
And you can’t really blame the Spaniard for the same. The Indian international looked uncharacteristically uninspired and out of sorts. There were too many games in which he has been AWOL and too many instances within those games where he lacked the fervour we have come to see in him in the past three seasons. And he himself doesn’t hide the disappointment,
“I would be lying if I said it was easy. But as a professional footballer this is bound to happen at some point in time in your career and how you deal with it then is very important.”
And being the true professional that he is, Bengaluru’s main man in the middle takes everything in stride, taking this as a challenge rather than a setback.
“It was a new challenge for me. It was nice in a way that I had to fight my way back into the squad.
“It has been a difficult season for me personally but then it’s been one where I have learnt so much about myself. Things have been looking up and we have two cups (Federation Cup and AFC Cup) to compete for.”
A fighter to the core who dropped out of college to pursue his dream of playing football at the highest level in India is not one to throw in the towel. The Federation Cup is up for grabs and whilst a defeat in their last game in the AFC Cup dropped them to second place in group E, they still have their destiny in their own hands.
But the question in everyone’s mind is “what went wrong?” For a club that has been at the forefront of India’s rise at the world stage, Bengaluru were supposed to take another step forward this season with a change in mentality that many claimed was refreshing under new coach Roca whilst also adding to their Indian core with the signings of Lenny Rodrigues and Sandesh Jhingan.
“Under Roca, we’re playing a different brand of football that is still a work in progress. There isn’t one particular reason why things didn’t go our way this I-League season.
“I would say it’s a mix of not taking our chances in front of goal, injuries and some very bad luck. At every given point in the season, there was at least one of these three things that kept going against us.
“But we’re not the kind of club that makes excuses. We’ve worked on things that we can change and have been doing well with two tournaments to play for,” Lyngdoh added.
And on Sunday when they take on Mohun Bagan, they know it might just be their last chance for redemption this season. Whilst, they might still progress into the knock-out stages of the AFC Cup, it’s hard to fathom them becoming the Aizawl FC story of the Asian continent – as impressive as they might be.
The talisman in the middle has fared much better in recent months and with him back on song, Bengaluru finished the I-League on a run of four consecutive wins and have followed that up with a run to the final of the Fed Cup, beating Aizawl on the way.
And when the ball gets rolling tonight at the Barabati stadium in Cuttack, the Blues – in the absence of Sunil Chhetri - will again look to their main man in the middle to inspire them to what could possibly be their lone shot at a silverware this season.