I-League: Aizawl fans never lost hope in their underdog team on topsy-turvy night
Aizawl are trailing. It is half time. But their fans are still singing. News arrives that Mohun Bagan have equalised. The levelling of scores means Aizawl are still winning the title.
I despair. Everyone around is screaming mad and crazy. Shillong Lajong have — against all reason and cause — scored to take the lead against Aizawl. After a brief lull, wave after wave of Aizawl attack is falling upon the home team, but no one seems to have the calmness, presence of mind or aptitude to put it in the back of the net. Mahmoud Al Amna shoots over, after a brilliant give and take in the Lajong box. From a corner, and a melee in the six-yard box, Bayi Kamo Stephane’s backheel is saved on the line.
With every save, every missed chance, the Lajong supporters gain voice. But, despite all that, there’s no lack of chances for Aizawl, who seem to have chosen this day to be wasteful. I despair (I write this twice in my notes. And then don’t write much else that is legible). Aizawl losing doesn’t suit me. It doesn’t suit anyone except perhaps the establishment.
The Aizawl fans are still singing. It is time to join them.
Ending up in the Lajong box was never part of the plan.
After a frenetic afternoon, one where Aizawl lodge an official protest for the choice of referees for the game, and there is a brief moment when everyone wonders if they will even take to the pitch, you get late going to the game.
A jam in Upper New Colony, on the road leading to the stadium has left a group of us disoriented. The drive is straight downhill, and then opens into the stadium gates. We sit in the car and wait. Kick-off is an hour away, but everyone is on edge. The car ahead empties itself out. It’s filled with Aizawl fans. They start trotting downhill. We wait. Their action becomes an epidemic. Soon, everyone is walking downhill, and taxis are stranded in the jam. No one honks.
I see Renedy Singh and Michael Chopra trot past our car, and into the crowd going towards the stadium. That sparks a personal exit. If Chopra is running, means we are obviously late.
When we finally get in, a wrong turn takes us to the Lajong box. It takes me a while to register this, simply because the opposite stand, the away stand mind you, is way louder. Way, way louder than the ones playing at home. Aizawl fans keep fine voice.
Even when Dipanda Dicka scores the opener for Lajong, and their fans lose it, Aizawl’s fans don’t fold up and go silent. They keep singing. An ‘ole ole’ is followed by an Aizawl FC. Their drums are louder than before. A large banner on their end reads ‘Victory through Christ’. It is Sunday evening, I realise. Maybe he’s taken to bed early.
Andrew Lalremruata is the heavyset man banging the set of drums. Half his face is painted white, and the other half is red. He reminds me of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart. He has that same half-crazy, slightly drunken, sneer. He makes it a point to ask who I am supporting. I wave my accreditation at him. “That doesn’t matter. What does it say? Pho? What’s that? Oh, photographer. I’m a photographer too, see,” he points out his camouflage fishing jacket as proof. And then no pause, “So who are you supporting?”
The Aizawl stand is a pothouse of madness. Aizawl are down. It is half time. But they are still singing. News arrives that Mohun Bagan, who were a goal down, have equalised with literally the last kick before halftime. This news is only relevant to me. The levelling of scores means Aizawl are still winning the title. But Bagan have broken Chennai’s resolve and will, in all probability score again. I try to get this point across to anyone who cares to listen. They don’t care. Some of them look at me in disbelief. Of course they are winning the title. What’s with the long face?
Andrew’s friend Zonu, is — if this is possible — even bigger and broader. Big enough to rival an English skinhead from Millwall. His forearms are big, powerful, well-shaped blocks of muscle. As the teams walk out after half time — Aizawl are the first in — Zonu leads the fans into a Mizo rendition of Hallelujah, complete with verse, chorus and percussion.
Two more chances fall for Aizawl, with Jayesh Rane getting both. First, his rising shot is tipped away by Lajong’s keeper Vishal Kaith. The crowd starts bouncing. Literally. From the corner, Rane finds himself in the six-yard box, with the ball at his feet. The group of girls behind me are screaming. He blazes over. Oooos ring out. I shake my head. This is not good. No one wastes so many chances, and gets what they want. Trust me, I know this. I’m an Arsenal fan.
Everywhere in the Aizawl box though, there is joy. They have come this far, with so little. The popular belief is that it will all be alright.
It is tough to watch a football game from the stands, and accurately report the tactical nuances of the game that may have affected the result. It is almost next to impossible to keep a neutral view and judge the legitimacy of a referee call. First, and foremost because your view of the action is compromised by pillars, high decibel levels in immediate proximity, prejudice and the invariable and involuntary Mexican wave that is initiated everytime a winger sprints with the ball down the line.
And so, I cannot accurately report if Dicka’s two falls in the box were penalties or not. The first came to me on the Lajong side. The overwhelming view was that it was, and that Zothia fouls too much. The second happened late in the game, when I was with Aizawl. A loud chorus of boos followed.
Subsequently, I cannot report if Laldanmawia Ralte’s inch perfect header, from Rane’s superb cross was offside either. All I can report is that Zanu spotted the linesman’s flag way before anyone else did. The stands broke into delirium, but Zanu never beat his drum. He stayed still. This wasn’t his moment. It would arrive. I follow his gaze. He is reading what I am. Victory through Christ.
No one despairs. They fling themselves into the singing unabated. They can feel this getting closer. Wave upon wave of Aizawl attack is punctuated with song after song by the Aizawl fans.
Finally William Lalnunfela scores. And like that, finally, I experience delirium in Indian football. Aizawl’s fans go way louder than the PA system (in fact, if you’re in their stand, the PA system is rendered useless) and their football team close the hatches.
Aizawl of course hold on for the win. Hold on, is putting it mildly. They scrape through. After their equaliser, all they want to do is wait out the final whistle. And terrifyingly, for them, twice in injury time, Lajong come close. First Dicka, puts it on the post, when smacking the net would’ve been simpler. And then his header goes inches wide. On any other day, in any other situation, within the same parameters of reality, those two chances would’ve gone in. But they don’t. After both, Rane and Zothia drop to the ground, weak kneed, berating themselves and thanking the skies.
There is a chant the Mizo fans do to the tune of ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’. The message is pretty much the same. The key difference is that they don’t require you to be happy to clap. The clapping should make you happy. The point is not to chant when happy, but to chant to be happy.
That is the lesson of Aizawl FC, and its fans. In a deeply imperfect world — a world where a shooting touch will abandon you at the worst possible moment, where your team may not, on paper, be good enough to win the title, where a currency may suddenly become useless and the decency of strangers cannot be presumed — in a world like that, Aizawl’s fans and their approach to life is the most rational one.
You control the things you can control — family, daily routine, the occasional big decision — and outside that you fling yourself with wild abandon, every day, at everything that seems worthy of pursuit. In the absence of guarantee and certainty, in this new Indian volatility, one can only bank on one thing: total presence, total sincerity, total effort, all the time. That is the sound of one hand clapping.
Postscript: Aizawl’s fans broke the fences and invaded the pitch after full time. Then they all went back to the stands, and cleaned up their mess. Apparently, it’s what they do. Game in. Game out.
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