In Aizawl FC's I-League title, Khalid Jamil earns redemption while Mizoram finds hope and recognition
Aizawl FC’s fairytale win puts the club, the city of Aizawl, Mizoram and Mizos at the forefront of national football and worldwide recognition.
Chapter 1: Redemption
Abuse pours down from the stands of the Cooperage Stadium as freely as Mumbai's rain on a typical August day.
If Khalid Jamil heard, he doesn't show it by reacting. He is being called many things, almost all of them uncalled for. Many of them, plain vile.
These Mumbai fans used to be in his corner once upon a time. Now, not so much. It was as if a switch had been flicked. And even though he is at the Cooperage in charge of his new club Aizawl FC, this was not the homecoming Jamil would have expected, having built the club from the ground up ever since he took over in 2009, two years after the club was formed.
That Jamil kept a club with limited resources up in the top division year after year should have been an achievement in itself. But the Mumbai team's management believed they could do better, leading to his sacking.
A day before that match at the Cooperage on 22 January, at the pre-match press conference, Jamil's successor, Santosh Kashyap had called him a 'fighting coach and a good motivator.' But he would go on to add: "He always fights for his team. But he tries to upset opponents with many things, everyone knows that. He tries all sorts of tricks to do that. Different coaches have different styles. I don't believe in such things. It's his style."
For years, Jamil has been accused of using defensive tactics to grind out points from games. It was considered his style of football, before Aizawl blew that reputation to smithereens with their freeflowing style of football through this season.
In that press conference, Kashyap also went on to elaborate on how he had gone on to change 'everything' at Mumbai FC ever since he took charge in June 2016.
"(I had to change) Everything. We now have GPS systems that we use during training. We have a goalkeeping coach, we have a bigger support staff who travel to away games also, which did not happen before due to budget constraints. That's why the Mumbai FC management brought me here, to take the club to the next level. The next level means finishing among the top three and getting there comfortably," Kashyap said.
As it turns out, Kashyap could not change everything at the club, which got relegated after a 4-0 defeat to East Bengal in the final match of the tournament.
Mumbai went on to finish the season at 10th position, 20 points off the target set by Kashyap, who himself was shown the door in March, not even a full season in charge.
Jamil, on the other hand, joined Aizawl FC barely a month before the I-League began. The club had been relegated the previous season despite having finished a place above DSK Shivajians, who had 'corporate immunity'. But the All India Football Federation (AIFF) allowed the club to re-enter the top division from the back door after the club's inspired performances in the Federation Cup, where they went on to reach the final.
Looking for a fresh home to resurrect his image, Jamil reached out to the club from north east.
"I called up the Aizawl manager sometime in December and told him that I was available and would like to join. Two days later, they called back and said 'aa jaao,’" Jamil told Firstpost.
Under him, Aizawl not only beat heavyweights like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, they did the double over his former club Mumbai FC. But Jamil says he did not derive any pleasure from the dual wins.
"Bacche jaisa pala aur bada kiya club ko. Unke haar main kya khushi? (I raised the club like my own child, how can I be happy at their defeat?)" Jamil asked.
Jamil is a man of few words. Often, at the press conferences he addresses, his answers tend to be shorter than the questions. But this season has been one long statement. One which has answered questions about his perceived defensive style of playing and his calibre to take a team to the I-League title.
Ask him what he changed at the club ever since he came on board and the answer is a casual, "Maine sirf khali jagah bhare. (I only filled some empty spaces)."
But in how he filled those empty spaces lies Jamil's real talent. He got on board players like Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta, both of whom had worked with him at Mumbai, apart from players like Syria's Mahmoud al Amna and Ivory Coast's Kamo Stephane Bayi.
"We had no hesitation in handing over the reins of the club to Jamil because we could see that despite the tiny budget he was handed by Mumbai season after season, he had still managed to keep them afloat in the top flight. We needed someone who could do that. We did not set any target for Jamil for this season, because we did not want to put additional pressure on him and the team," Robert Royte, owner of the Aizawl FC, told Firstpost.
Royte added: "We had been impressed by Al Amna, but we didn't even have his contact number. When Jamil came, he spoke to Al Amna and in just a few minutes, he was ready to play for us. That's all it took!"
Ashutosh, too, admits he didn't need any convincing to join the north eastern club.
"I didn't give a second thought about joining Aizawl FC when Khalid sir approached me. He has helped me a lot throughout my career. I've grown as a player and as a person under him. He gave me the opportunity I needed as a junior player and I'm honored to be still playing under him as a player," Ashutosh said. "He is the most hardworking coach I have ever seen. His passion and dedication towards the game are what I like and also look up to. He is always trying to get results out of a game. He always thinks about football, his team and his players first before anything else. Everyone (at the club) has worked tremendously hard but if there is someone who deserves the I-League title the most this season, it's him."
As Aizawl came into the final game of the season on Sunday, the equation was simple: they needed a draw or a win against Shillong Lajong to usurp the I-League title. But a loss would mean they would have to hope Mohun Bagan would not beat Chennai City FC. Bagan did win their match 2-1, but Aizawl’s 1-1 draw handed them the title.
“This is my biggest victory ever,” Jamil said at the press conference afterwards. “I always wanted to win the I-League. Every time at the start of the season I used to tell myself that ‘this year I should win it.’ I had to wait. And today we have won.”
More importantly, the win handed Jamil something he had been seeking desperately since being sacked by Mumbai FC. Redemption.
Chapter 2: Hope
Football is much more than a sport in Mizoram. Nothing else can rouse such fever-pitch excitement in the state. But it’s only in recent years that the popularity is starting to manifest itself into something tangible. A little over two years after the state won its maiden Santosh Trophy title, Mizoram also clinched the sub-junior national football championship earlier this week.
Yet, on the national level only a handful of footballers like Shylo ‘Mama’ Malsawmtluanga and Jeje Lalpekhlua have entered national consciousness.
With Aizawl’s victory, even that could change.
“In Mizoram, football is like life. It is a source of enjoyment, employment and also education. Here, people use football to teach their kids the way of life,” said Mizoram Football Association’s secretary, Lalnghinlova Hmar.
“Aizawl’s win is a very important development in the history of Mizoram. This is only Aizawl FC's second I-League season and their performance has been nothing less than an inspiration for Indian football and it has also shown the amount of talent there is in Mizoram. In context of the state also the I-League title means a lot. We have been working at all levels for developing football in Mizoram and the rise of Aizawl FC is only going to boost our efforts as more kids will now have local heroes whom they can associate themselves with,” Hmar added.
“Each and every player in the team is already a hero. This is the club that is giving the people in Mizoram hope in the fact that even after coming from a small city like Aizawl you can be a national icon. Jeje (Lalpekhlua), Mama (Shylo Malsawmtluanga) and Dika (Lalrindika Ralte) have done it in the past and became stars in the Indian football scenario. Now with the developments this season, we are hopeful that we will have a number of players soon representing the Indian national football team from Mizoram.”
“To me, Aizawl FC represents how far we Mizos have come in Indian football in the past decade,” pointed out Lalhmingmawii Sailo, a fan who has supported the club ever since its advent in the I-League.
“Winning the league will give a new sense of pride to the people. It will be a major breakthrough for the players and kids aspiring to become professional footballers,” Benjamin Zote, another die-hard fan of the club, said.
Unfortunately, given the uncertainty surrounding the next season due to the impending merger of the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL), a massive question mark hangs over the team’s future. But that has not prevented the club from investing in grassroots development. By the end of this year, Aizawl FC has plans to start operations in six youth academies – four of them in Mizoram, one in Tripura and one in Myanmar.
“We get a lot of support even from neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh. In fact, as many as five players in the Myanmar national team have their origins in Mizoram. That’s why we decided to set up an academy there in a town called Tahan, where the majority of the population is Mizo. In Tripura our academy is on the Jampui Hills. But our main youth development plans revolve around a residential academy in Lungleng, which is situated 15 kms from the heart of Aizawl. This will be an academy which is expected to go functional by November,” Royte said.
Aizawl FC’s future is mired in uncertainty. But hope still peeks out like light breaking out of dark clouds.
Chapter 3: Recognition
Rain pounds Aizawl's Rajiv Gandhi Stadium. If that isn't bad enough, mist envelops the ground. These were horrible conditions to watch football. 11,203 people disagreed. Despite the cold, the dampness and low visibility, the stands are packed. Fans huddle under umbrellas and try to make sense of the match. A nearby hillock overlooking the ground too is covered with bodies desperate for a glimpse of the action.
How could they have missed this match? After all, their club, Aizawl FC, were taking on Mohun Bagan in the penultimate match of the season, where a win by a two-goal margin would have sufficed to take them to the first I-League title for a club from the north east. So the rain and the mist were not even a consideration.
The home club won 1-0, which leads them to needing just a point off the last match against Lajong. After the victory, Mehta led some of the players in a reprise of the Viking clap that Iceland players and fans did at the Euro 2016.
"I cannot even begin to describe the mood the fans create during home games. But it's a treat to play in front of them. The players can feel the fans create an atmosphere two days before any match," said Mehta, who was suspended for the last match against Shillong Lajong.
"The fan culture here is the best in the country. People here just love football. And they are very knowledgeable too. Every match is packed. In our match against Churchill in Goa, we had more fans in the stadium than they did," Jamil added.
With the state of Mizoram having a vibrant football culture at the grassroots, many of these fans do not support Aizawl FC in local tournaments. But when it comes to the I-League, the fans realise that something bigger is at stake here.
“Aizawl winning the title made all of us immensely proud. It is not very often that we get recognition at the national level. Hopefully, at least football fans from mainland India will now know that Mizoram is a state in India, and that the Mizos are not Chinese or Japanese,” said Lalsangliani Ralte.
“Aizawl FC represents the collective efforts of Mizoram Football Association, Mizo football coaches and players, as well as the Mizo football fans. The club could be said to be an unofficial ambassador of our state and our culture. So, as both a Mizo and as a football fan, Aizawl FC is a club I think of with fondness and affection.”
Zote added: “AFC is more than just a football club, it's the only sports club as well as the only product which represents Mizoram in the economically and culturally diversified India.”
Another fan, Amos Lalremtluanga, pointed out: “Aizawl FC’s win puts the club, the city of Aizawl, Mizoram and Mizos at the forefront of national football and worldwide recognition, somewhat similar to what Leicester FC. The achievements of AFC are being lauded by r/soccer, the world’s biggest soccer forum (on reddit)."
What is even more incredible, is that the club has a sizable number of female fans, who are emotionally invested in the fortunes of the club, a rarity in Indian football where most clubs have predominantly male fan bases.
Ralte, who is among the scores of women who turn up at every home match, said: “I have been watching Aizawl’s home matches knowing how privileged I am to be able to witness a beautiful history in the making. After all, the club has changed the entire scenario of football in Mizoram.”
After Sunday night, Aizawl may just have changed the scenario of Indian football!
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