So much of the build up to this match — the final round of fixtures for the I-League — is about Aizawl FC and the improbability of their success, that it is easy to forget that their opponents, Shillong Lajong were in the title race a mere two weeks back.
A 2-0 loss to Bengaluru FC and a subsequent 1-1 draw to Mumbai means they will finish no higher than fourth anymore. This, of course, is only if they beat their North East derby rivals on Sunday. Those same rivals you know, the team currently spinning the heady concoction of romance and fairytale in Indian football.
Aizawl FC’s achievements this season are unparalled, matched perhaps only by another Shillong-based club’s brilliance two seasons ago. Not those guys. Sadly no. That was Royal Wahingdoh. These are the two clubs that will regularly feature in packages for people collecting memories of great North East teams of the decade. For Lajong, the ignominy of being omitted will sting. It is quite like being the first to every party, and watching the latecomers steal the girl. And not for lack of charm.
Of the multiple clubs from the North East that have entered Indian football, Lajong have been quite easily the most consistent. Royal Wahingdoh, the team that captured the public’s imagination in 2015, lasted just the one single season in the top division, before backing down and investing in youth programmes rather than endure the current mire that is the top division. Bhaichung Bhutia’s United Sikkim have flitted in and out, but never been there long enough to be noticed. Lajong have. Since their debut in the I-League top division in 2009-10, Shillong’s own have been constantly in the mix, dropping down twice, only to rise back up.
The word Lajong literally translates as ‘our own’ in Khasi. And for them, the idea of ‘the people’s club’ is more than a slogan. Where, Aizawl are looking to prove that big money doesn’t mean big prizes, Lajong for their part want to cement their role as the nursery for the North East.
They have in many ways done what perhaps other ‘smaller’ clubs, with modest budgets look to emulate. They have a financially strong and secure system, with a grassroot line so strong, that they regularly field teams with an average age of 21 years in the top division of Indian football.
Additionally Lajong have always prided themselves on their diversity. In a curious twist, they have six Mizo players in their squad. This is a fact that Aizawl supporters cannot get enough of. The overwhelming sentiment is, that “Mizo players make Lajong.”
Larsingh Ming Sawyan, the owner of Lajong, brushes this over gently. “Our biggest achievement has been to integrate the diverse spirit of the North East into one common fold. For us this match is the North East versus a team from Aizawl.” He pushes this on, and points out that Mizoram’s real talent, and scope for the future, is to play in Lajong’s colours. “The future of Mizoram is linked to Lajong more than Aizawl, as far as football is concerned.”
The players he mentions are, Samuel Lalmuanpuia and Issac Vanmalsawma, two attacking players who look set to play at this level for a while.
Then of course there is the cultural question. Shillong is the cultural capital of the North East, home to writers, singers, musicians, poets and scholars. For a true experience of a Shillong evening, one must climb the hill to the numerous bars, that open out to live music, from a diverse range of North East cultures. At any time of day, a diverse group of people are always riding in the Maruti 800 taxis that crowd the main road. ‘Our own’ is a collective, that doesn’t specify or define who. Shillong is the pulsating, vibrant heartbeat of the North East identity. Anything else, Aizawl or Imphal, functions at a lower pace, a country cousin, who plays football, but little else.
Make no mistake though. This isn’t some little brother, big brother turf war. Cultural superiority arguments can rage for weeks in the North East. And rarely does one get a firm last say.
Sure, Lajong are older, more consistent, but for Aizawl, this is the chance to be the first at something. The perfect way to take away Lajong’s pride.
For the Mizos, this will be a chance to correct all perceived slights. There will be a travelling support, and then there will be the local Mizo population, Shillong’s diversity isn’t restricted to its football team after all. They will be singing at full lilt. It will be like home, but away.
It won’t be easy in any way. Thangboi Singto, Shillong Lajong’s long-time coach, has already declared, that his team “will not let Aizawl just come in and take the title.” AIFF’s anti-corruption officers — in Shillong to ensure the two teams do not treat this all important match as a friendly — need not worry. This isn’t just a North East derby anymore. For Aizawl it is serious bragging rights, and for Lajong, denying them that chance, almost as an act of self-preservation, even if it means extending the North East’s drought for a league title.
What will happen? I asked a friend based in Shillong “What will happen?” When he replied, I could almost hear a cruel smile, “Some dreams will be killed on Sunday. That’s all.”
Updated Date: Apr 29, 2017 12:47 PM