It was a noisy evening in the hilly town of Aizawl as people were celebrating Aizawl FC’s and a Northeast Indian club’s first I-League title win
Aizawl FC won their maiden I-League title following a dramatic season finale, which saw them going toe-to-toe with Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan. On the final day of the season, Aizawl, who had 36 points from 17 matches, needed only a draw to be crowned champions ahead of Bagan, who trailed them by three points. Their 1-1 draw against another club from the Northeast, Shillong Lajong, confirmed the stunning achievement for Aizawl FC, who, in the process, became the first team from the Northeast to win the national championship.
The journey of Aizawl FC
It’s an incredible tale at many levels, not least because Aizawl were relegated to the second division last year. That was their debut season and Aizawl’s young, untested players were seen as not good enough at this level and the team’s nightmare ended with them being bundled out of the league.
This season, as the clubs from Goa boycotted the league due to a tiff with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Aizawl were brought back, just to make the numbers. The reinstatement happened barely a month before the start of the new season in January.
Khalid Jamil was appointed as Aizawl FC’s head coach just before the start of the 2016-17 season and he delivered it for them. Jamil, born in Kuwait to Indian parents, had been sacked by Mumbai FC last season after a seven-year stint with the team. The club thought he wasn’t ambitious enough and termed his seven years with the team “a failure”.
At the start of this season, Aizawl’s target was to avoid relegation, which was understandable for a club with modest means. In Mizoram, they joke about how one Mohun Bagan player can pay for the entire Aizawl team. Unofficial estimates put their annual budget at Rs 1.25 crore, which includes players’ fee, food, travel, stay and medical expenses. That is one crore less than what Bagan reportedly pays its costliest player, Haiti’s Sony Norde.
But just like Bengaluru had shown three years ago, Aizawl too have proven that teams with virtual unknowns can win big. And win in style. Every match day, sceptics waited for this bunch of novices to trip but they have played on. They remained unbeaten at home and played a brand of football that is synonymous with teams from the Northeast – attacking, yet sublime. The packed stands, even on weekdays, were testimony a state that is crazy about its football.
The Final Game : Shillong Lajong vs Aizawl FC
It was fitting when the hopes of Aizawl FC were destined to be decided in the North-East Derby of the I-League. AIFF sent a committee to Shillong to ensure that any wrong-doing would not take place in the game. Still it is up for debate how they appointed a Bengali referee for the game; considering the fact that Mohun Bagan, a Kolkata club, were in the running for the title too.
Shillong Lajong coach Thangboi Singto had said, “We will give our best to win against Aizawl FC. I don’t mind being branded a villain by the North-East”. But it wasn’t to be, as the game ended a 1-1 draw securing the title for Jamil’s men.
At the start of the game, it was only 2500-3000 Aizawl FC fans backing their team but once Aizawl FC’s goal was scored , the whole Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium of Shillong packed with 23,000 spectators turned into Northeast faithfulls and only chantings of ‘Aizawl Aizawl’ were heard throughout.
This shows how Northeast India is the original hub of football and with their win Aizawl FC have won hearts not only in Northeast India but in all corners of football loving India. From a dark horse to a champion, this Aizawl FC team has become immortal in Indian football history.
Merger Woes for Aizawl
Mizoram won the national state championship in 2014 and were crowned the sub-junior national champions only on Friday. The I-League win only adds to the growing football reputation of the state. Aizawl’s celebrations, however, might be cut short.
Aizawl will represent India in next season’s AFC Champions League, and it is hard to fathom they will be playing in the second division while fighting it out in Asia. Nowhere on this planet will we find the champions getting relegated for not being rich but India. We have already seen the AIFF paying no heed to Aizawl’s request for the appointment of neutral referees, hence it doesn’t seem far-fetched that they will consign the champions to the background.
The new league structure proposed by the AIFF and its commercial partners, IMG-Reliance, will have no space for clubs such as Aizawl, making the top-tier of Indian football an exclusive space for cash-rich clubs. A team that was relegated last year are the new champions of Indian football. And quite astonishingly, the champions are likely to be relegated again.