On Sunday evening at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong, an unlikely journey is likely to reach its climax when Mizoram will have produced an I-League winning club, thus becoming the first club to reach the pinnacle of football in India that is not from the western extremity of the country or Kolkata.
In 2002, one 17-year-old Mizo stepped onto the pitch in East Bengal colours, brushing shoulders with the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Suley Musah and Mike Okoro, at the time the first footballer from his state to cross borders to ply his trade.
In the 2016/17 I-League season, there are 58 Mizo footballers spread over the ten teams – about 1 out of every 5 players in the country’s elite division.
14-year-old Shylo Malswamtluanga’s journey took him by an uncomfortable bus to Siliguri, then an overcrowded train compartment to Kolkata, and then a local train to Jamshedpur’s Tata Football Academy, where nobody had a clue where his homeland was.
“I did not know how to speak Hindi or English. Because nobody understood me and I understood nobody, I sometimes kept quiet for 2-3 days, just keeping my focus on football. When everybody laughed, I also laughed.”
Little was known about the Mizoram of then. The sight of a sprightly right winger with an unspellable name being an electric wire on East Bengal’s flanks is an unforgettable element from the period of glory in the early 2000s for the Red and Golds. Malswamtluanga became ‘Mama’ to the adoring Kolkata crowd.
“In East Bengal, they did not know how to pronounce my name. So the officials started calling me Tulunga,” says the former India international, who currently plays in the 2nd division of the I-League for Southern Samity.
32-year-old Mama, known as the Godfather in Mizoram, can be credited with showing a new generation dreams of taking up football as a profession – dreams sown when reports from his East Bengal days appeared in local papers, when Mizoram narrowly missed out on the 2005 Santosh Trophy under his leadership, when Aizawl FC qualified to be the first Mizo club in the I-League in 2015.
“I used to say I’m from Mizoram, but some thought that was in Sikkim, some thought it was in Nagaland. They just didn’t know,” he says on his earliest days in the big city.Today, younger players from his state, many of whom have represented India– Jeje Lalpekhlua, Lalrindika Ralte, Robert Lalthlamuana and others – come to him to ask for advice on matters of money or the heart.
“People back home now take playing football as a profession very seriously. It’s really exciting what they can achieve,” Mama says on the young crop from Aizawl FC who are representing much more than themselves, and on the possibility of the national team riding on the Mizo wave to even greater glory.
Such is the seemingly effortless genius of this new tribe of footballers, that in every glorious victory for Aizawl FC – a club with a miniscule fraction of the budget of its competitors – inching them towards the crown, there have been fellow Mizos in pivotal roles on the losing side.
On Sunday, Samuel Lalmanpuia and Isaac Vanmalswama from Shillong Lajong FC will be consigned to similar fates, their entire homeland will be hoping and praying.
Mama says on the unique burden facing the six Mizo footballers in Lajong, “I think they will be happy and proud that a club from Mizoram have a chance of becoming an I-League champion. This is what football is all about – passion, determination, and the belief that when God is on our side impossible becomes possible.”
Despite the number of goals that he has scored over the last decade, Mama has no track of his career records, saying, “When I give an assist for a goal, I’m the happiest. Goals make me happy too, but assists make me happier.”
No wonder then that when Aizawl FC are within one point of eternal history, Mama, who started the process fifteen years ago, is holding his breath till Sunday evening along with the rest of the country, but perhaps with a special gleam in his eye.
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