The world’s long-standing fascination for sporting underdogs is well known to us all. Last year, it was Leicester City who scripted an unforeseen fairytale run on their way to earning global acclamation. The game has never been short of such anecdotes — Montpellier winning the Ligue 1 in 2012 and Atletico Madrid lifting the La Liga title in 2014 are some of the other awe-inspiring stories in recent memory that brought the footballing fraternity to a standstill. It wasn’t that long ago when Indian football came at crossroads with one such moment of its own that saw Bengaluru FC lift the I-League crown in their first season of existence back in 2014. Three years on, there’s yet another underdog making all the right noises.
Mizoram’s Aizawl FC became the first-ever national champions hailing from the north-east of the Indian footballing landscape to win the I-League. All this has become possible thanks to a slender 1-0 win over Mohun Bagan in the title-decider. Coming into the game, the two teams were level on points but Bagan’s superior goal difference meant that a draw would make it a mountain to climb for Aizawl while a loss would signal the end of their title hopes. However, the closely-contested affair was settled by Laldanmawia Ralte who nodded home an 83rd-minute winner to take the highlanders on the brink of achieving its finest hour in its 33-year-old history. Had Aizawl scored once more, the title would have been officially theirs by then only. Nonetheless, the result was the perfect way to avenge the 5-0 Federation Cup final mauling they suffered at the hands Bagan last year in Guwahati. The Mizoram outfit’s date with destiny is set for Sunday, 30 April when they face regional rivals Shillong Lajong in a North-East derby.
Aizawl winning I-League remarkable story. Tells you of sports talent in small town India as also effort & vision needed to actualise this
— Cricketwallah (@cricketwallah) April 30, 2017
To put into perspective, it has been quite an achievement for Aizawl going by the highlanders’ brief history. Found on 14 February 1984, the north-east club had remained defunct for much of its history before the current owner Robert Romawia Royte took over the club operations in 2011. In January 2012, they were officially certified by the All India Football Federation to participate in the I-League 2nd Division which they went on to win in 2015. Aizawl made their top-flight bow last year only but were relegated following an 8th-placed finish while rock-bottom DSK Shivajians were rescued by corporate immunity from relegation. However, with Goan clubs Salgaocar, Sporting Clube de Goa and Dempo (second-division champions who were set to take Aizawl’s place) opting out of the current season citing their objections to the proposed I-League-ISL merger, AIFF handed the north-east club a lifeline just to make up the numbers. And boy did they grab this second opportunity with both hands. The club’s annual budget is estimated to be 2 crore Indian rupees — the same amount Mohan Bagan pays to its star man Sony Norde as salary.
Right from the squad members to the performances on the pitch, Aizawl’s astonishing season has shades of Leicester City written all over it. Many of its players who are now playing a key role en route to unprecedented glory were either once discards at previous clubs or have been a journeyman for the majority of their careers. Captain Alfred Jaryan, a Liberian national, played for Mohammedan Sporting club twice and Mumbai FC before landing a contract with the club a couple of years ago. Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta have turned around their dwindling fortunes since joining Aizawl on loan from ISL clubs Chennaiyin FC and Mumbai City FC respectively. War-torn Aleppo-born Mahmoud Al Amnah has played club football in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Malaysia before coming to India in 2015. Coach Khalid Jamil, who took over the reigns from Jahar Das, spent his entire childhood in Kuwait before representing India on 7 occasions and after leaving Mumbai FC at the end of last campaign following a trophyless seven-year spell, he finds himself on the brink of lifting a first major piece of silverware in his 20-year association with the sport. Once leading a life in obscurity, now everyone wants a piece of them.
We came to Aizawl and the rest is history CHAMPIONS OF INDIA!? . The people of Mizoram you all deserve this. INDIA IS RED! pic.twitter.com/qj0dA5mDMk
— Ashutosh_mehta1 (@Ashutosh_mehta1) April 30, 2017
The perks of winning the league aren’t just restricted to overnight fame as the club will be rewarded with a chance to make their maiden continental excursion in the AFC Champions League qualifiers come January 2018. Aizawl will get yet another opportunity to make history as no Indian club has ever made it past the qualifying rounds in Asia’s elite club football competition. With the proposed merger of ISL and I-League tentatively scheduled at the start of 2018/19 season, there’s a chance that Aizawl may not be around on the national scene for much long owing to the club’s modest resources. The current season could well be I-League’s last as India’s premier football league. But irrespective of what the future holds, the fans are revelling in Aizawl’s newly-found fame and success. As the epithet goes — enjoy while it lasts.
Image credit: Hindustan Times