Aizawl FC – The Indian Football Fairy-tale
The incredible story of Aizawl FC and their dream run towards Indian footballing history.
The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium is one of the most picturesque stadiums in the I-League. Set up high in Aizawl, Mizoram, it offers stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Ahead of the game against Mohun Bagan, dark grey clouds hang heavy over the stadium as thousands of fans make the pilgrimage towards the stadium to push their beloved Aizawl FC towards the cusp of history.
‘Tickets Sold Out’ signs are all over the town. The club officials even allocated tickets to the nearby hillock to accommodate the fans. Almost every shop is selling replica I-League trophies. All of Mizoram has been preparing itself for this day.
The air is damp as rain threatens to disrupt this auspicious day. The ground is covered in a thick mist that envelopes even the goalposts, hiding them. The sombre mood seeps into the bones of the supporters. The enormity of the situation is suddenly before them. Their team, their dream, their Aizawl is taking on the mighty Mohun Bagan in a match that could decide the title.
As things stand, Aizawl and Mohun Bagan are both tied at 33 points from 16 games. Mohun Bagan are top of the table, going into the match with a higher goal difference of 15, while Aizawl trail them with nine. Aizawl FC stand to be champions if they win by two goals or more, and will need only a draw against Shillong Lajong in the last round.
I-League’s oldest club taking on the youngest. Mighty Bagan, with its decorated 100-year history is pit against a club that just came back into the national fold a few years ago.
Aizawl FC only got into the country’s top division – the I-League – in 2016. After four years of hard work in the second division, AFC became the first club from Mizoram to take part in the prestigious top division. It was a proud moment for the club, and its fans from this football-obsessed state.
In its inaugural season, Aizawl FC played fearless and exciting football under the tutelage of Jahar Das. The team comprising of all Mizo players and a few foreigners won many admirers for their brand of football but lost crucial points due to inexperience. At home, backed by raucous fan support, they took the game to more illustrious opponents but rarely came out with the win. East Bengal and Bengaluru for example, escaped with narrow wins while Bagan had to go back smarting from a loss.
Despite finishing eighth out of a 9-team league, Aizawl was relegated due to the strange rules coined by the AIFF. Pune-based club DSK Shivajians finished at the bottom, yet they enjoyed three-year immunity from relegation as they entered the I-league through the corporate quota; a system devised by the AIFF to get more funding into the league.
All of Mizoram mourned Aizawl FC’s relegation. The fans were shattered. That DSK escaped relegation only because they paid for survival seemed cruel and unfair. For the Mizoram-based club, it was heart-breaking to go down like this, after years of battling it out in the 2nd division.
The club had won fans all over the country for its style of play as well as its football model. Everyone loved the idea of a club operating on a shoestring budget, developing local talent and taking on big corporates. This wave strengthened further when Aizawl reached the Federation Cup finals, beating champions Bengaluru and Sporting Clube De Goa along the way. The players believed that they belonged there, so they did.
That season ended with turmoil in the I-League. Salgaocar SC and Dempo SC pulled out of the league for the next season in protest against the AIFF’s proposed restructuring of the league. In September that year, Aizawl got lucky and got a second chance. AIFF’s executive committee reinstated the club to the I-league for its “heart-warming performances”.
The team management immediately got to work. They roped in Khalid Jamil, a coach sacked by Mumbai FC the previous season. Jamil had the experience of managing clubs on a low budget but wasn’t known to build championship winners. He came with the reputation of a tough, old-fashioned disciplinarian whose teams are hard to beat but not very pleasing on the eye.
When the league started, punters put their money on another battle between Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan. No one expected tiny Aizawl to make a dent in the standings. Almost all of their players hailed from the Northeast. Thirteen of their players aged 22 or under, and only three above 30. However, the north easterners quickly got people’s attention with quick, short passing football. The players combined skill with bucket loads of determination. At home, with the fans behind them, their record reads seven wins and one draw.
“I really appreciate the hard work Jamil puts in,” says Hmingthana Zadeng, the team manager who was part of the group of friends who revived the defunct club in 2011. “He thinks and talks about football all the time.”
Jamil taught Aizawl how to grind out points when needed. He managed to instil the street smarts required to close out games. This reflects in AFC’s modus operandi this season: out-pass opponents in the first half, and then move for the kill in the second. Prior to this weekend, Aizawl was the only club not to have scored in the opening half-hour of any match this season, but those early exchanges helped the team assert its dominance. Players have reaped the benefits late on – nearly three-quarters of Aizawl’s goals have come in the second half, including three winners after the 85th-minute mark.
“The difference from last season is the preparation. Earlier we thought he would be scary, but it’s quite the opposite. He’s a disciplinarian but also jokes around a lot. His research on the opposition is so good – very detailed. That doesn’t mean we can’t play with freedom. Now we are more structured, tactically more solid,” Brandon Vanlalremdika, the club’s forward said.
Aizawl have punched way above their weight this season. To put budgets into perspective, Aizawl run the club with a funding of around Rs. 3.5 crore for the season. Bagan’s Sony Norde alone earns around 2 crore rupees.
Despite the low budgets, Aizawl has a sustainable model. It has a community of fans who regularly fill up the stands, buy the club’s merchandise, and back the club whole-heartedly in its endeavours. It’s almost like the club represents the entire state which, unlike many others in India, plays only one sport.
While the fans are delighted with the way the team is playing, there’s a slight foreboding anxiety that it might all come crashing down today.
Almost on cue, the match kicks off amidst thunder and lightning. The sheer weight of expectation shows as the match starts. It takes Bagan just three minutes to slice open the Aizawl defence. 2-crore-a-season Norde puts Daryl Duffy, the league’s highest scorer, in clear sight of goal. The Scottish player takes a fierce shot that’s palmed away by Goan goalkeeper Albino Gomes. There’s a audible collective sigh of relief from the stands.
With ground visibility at a minimum, the fans are quiet and Bagan are on top. They dominate possession and easily hustle over Aizawl’s players. Another Bagan forward Jeje, tumbles in the box and asks for a penalty but the referee waves play on. Bagan are pressing for a goal but the mist is so heavy that the referee has to stop play twice because of low visibility. The fans can’t even tell who has the ball from the stands.
Something changes at half time. The clouds grudgingly give way and the thousands of Mizo’s find their voices. The stands start shaking with the dancing and jumping of the fans. “Yahan clouds mera sunta hai. Half time mein bola unko jao, toh woh chala gaya” Jamil later tells the press at the post match conference. The reverberations are noticed across the pitch as well. Jamil tells his boys to break free.
Mahmoud Al Amna – the clubs Syrian playmaker from war-torn Aleppo – is told to play in a more advanced role in the midfield. Jayesh Rane, one of the three non-Mizos amongst Aizawl’s Indian players, is given the license to run up and down the wings without worrying to fall back. Defender Ashutosh Mehta, who along with Rane came with Jamil from Mumbai, is given the responsibility to shadow Norde. Liberian striker Alfred Jaryan is told to help the midfield while the team’s top scorer Kamo is kept as the lone forward.
It seems in Aizawl, everyone listens to Khalid Jamil. Suddenly, Aizawl are transformed. Aizawl presses, not giving Bagan any time on the ball. The Mariners keep losing the ball, with Aizawl breaking at speed every time they get possession. “We want a goal,” the fans scream every time Aizawl pushes forward. In the 83rd minute, Zohmingliana Ralte, the 5’6” defender leaps over his tall Mohun Bagan counterparts and nods the ball past an onrushing Debjit Majumdar. The net bulges and there’s pandemonium in the stands. Aizawl’s dream just got realer.
“We will build Jamil’s statue, right in middle of the town,” says a female fan dressed in an Aizawl t-shirt and her face glowing red with the paint of her team’s colors. When asked about the victory celebrations at the post match conference, Jamil understandably played down the win. “Our focus has shifted to the last match, a real tricky one.”
Aizawl finished the match with a goal to nil and bagged three crucial points. The single goal isn’t enough to bag them the title outright, but now they just need a single point from their next game against fellow North Easterners, Shillong Lajong.
Aizawl’s rise to the top is nothing short of miraculous, and is the type of underdog story rarely seen outside of cinema. Last year, the world celebrated as little Leicester City took the English Premier League by storm and now Aizawl stands the chance to do the same.
Aizawl FC bring passion, support, and a genuine history of grooming local young talent in Mizoram to the table as a football club. In this era of indecisiveness in Indian Football, they are leading the way, showing how a club can be successful and sustainable.
Aizawl visit Shillong Lajong on Sunday with a chance to make football history. One thing is for sure though, win or lose, people will be talking about Khalid Jamil and his team of fearless players for years to come.