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The fairy tale rise of Aizawl FC

In 2011, Aizawl Football Club, a revolutionary amateur club from the capital of Mizoram, had been defunct for nearly 14 years. It existed merely in name and spirit, staying alive only in the hazy memories of a handful of ageing locals.

Today, six years after being revived by a small group of fervent football fans, Aizawl FC is defying the steepest of odds and scripting the most remarkable fairy tale of Indian football’s contemporary era.

A professional club today, AFC sits joint-top of India’s national domestic league, the I-league, and finds itself locked in an enthralling three-way title race with clubs it could hardly have dreamt of rubbing shoulders with back in 2011.

With only two matches left, Aizawl is level on points with Kolkata giant Mohun Bagan and six ahead of another in East Bengal (which has played one game fewer at the time of writing), while other big boys like Bengaluru FC, the defending champions, and Shillong Lajong, the flagbearers of football in India's North-East, have long been left out in the dust.

Operating on a modest budget, among the lowest in the league, and banking more on passionate hustle on the pitch than financial muscle off it, it stands on the brink of being crowned the champions of India. An extraordinary feat for a team that wasn’t even supposed to be playing in the top tier this year: Aizawl had been relegated from the I-league on its debut in 2016, only to be reinstated a few months later.

In a social context, AFC’s success holds significance for its people beyond football; it proudly represents on a national scale a region which struggles to find a voice in mainstream India. On the footballing front, the club is serving as a symbol of defiance; its success coming at a time when Indian football is preparing to abandon the very principles of egalitarianism that allow for stories such as this one to flourish.

Aizawl’s tale is as much about footballing romance as it is about challenging the established norms both on and off the pitch. And it starts all the way back in 1984, the year of the club’s birth.

***

Over three decades ago, Benjamin Khiangte, the son of an IFS officer and a globally well-travelled man, returned to Mizoram in hope of creating a football landscape which mirrored that of European football. He had been inspired by the European leagues having visited Spain, among other countries.

Upon his return, though, he discovered that football was exclusively a public-sector pastime. Miffed by the existence of only government-run teams and the shabbily run Mizoram Football Association (MFA), Khiangte initiated a one-man rebellion against the MFA which culminated in him founding Aizawl FC in 1984—as much a symbol of defiance then as it is now.

Raging a battle for the state’s best footballers, the founder kept hold of his top players by loaning out Maruti cars, a luxury in the 1980s, to counter rival clubs’ lure of a government job with a steady income.

In the Indian context, Khiangte was a visionary well ahead of his time. He even brought branded jerseys from abroad for his players to wear at a time when kit sponsorship was an alien concept to football in India. This was an effort towards making his players feel as close to professional footballers as possible.

However, Mizoram’s football ecosystem failed to flourish even though the sport was the state’s most popular choice. As the national league headed towards professionalism, Mizoram remained an amateur state. Eventually, by around 1998, AFC slowly drifted into obscurity. Little did anyone know then that a club wanting to ignite a football revolution would become the face of one almost two decades later.

***

Hmingthana Zadeng, AFC’s team manager, was part of the group of friends which revived the defunct club in 2011. “Our dream was simply to play in the I-league,” he says. Winning it had not even crossed their minds. “We knew we had the potential in Mizoram.”

Also part of the same group was Robert Romawia Royte, now the club’s owner and its president. Royte, a well-known politician and businessman in the region, is the chairman of TT ROYTE Group and founder of Northeast Consultancy Services (NECS), the club’s only source of funding aside from the support from the Tata Trusts for their youth development programmes.

“My decision to takeover AFC was purely because of my passion and love for football,” Royte insists. “It was the decision of a footballer (and not that of a businessman)!”

In 2012, owing to financial problems, the club’s executive committee decided to hand over its complete reins to president Royte. In the same year, Aizawl graduated from amateur to professional, clearing the All India Football Federation (AIFF) criteria, and were also granted entry into the I-league 2nd Division.

It was the beginning of a perfect storm. While AFC got its act together, it was handed the timely boost of a developing, and later thriving, football ecosystem it had missed in the 1990s. Mizoram Premier League (MPL), the first semi-professional league in the state, kicked off in 2012, ushering Mizo football into a new era. MPL, revisited later in this text, is now a benchmark for state leagues across India.

***

Aizawl were first thrown into the national limelight in 2016. By winning the I-league 2nd Division on its fourth attempt the previous year, AFC had become the first club from Mizoram to participate in the top division. A proud moment for a football-obsessed state.

On its I-league debut, though, a squad comprising a bunch of Mizo players (all Indians on the team hailed from Mizoram except the goalkeeper) and a few foreigners played a flamboyant and fearless brand of quick-passing attacking football that won plenty of admirers but few points. It rarely yielded results but never failed to entertain.

Aizawl’s play came as a breath of fresh air in a season short on romance. There’s nothing more uplifting in sport than watching a young team take the game to a stronger opponent with careless abandon. AFC often outplayed the big boys, especially in home games, but couldn’t convert performances into points. 

Bengaluru and East Bengal, for instance, escaped with undeserving narrow wins and thanked their lucky stars, while Mohun Bagan was beaten in Aizawl—which proved to be a pivotal moment in the title race.

Photo: Hindustan Times

Despite not finishing last, the Mizoram team was the only one to be relegated to the lower tier, one of Indian football’s peculiarities. It was because Pune-based club DSK Shivajians finished at the bottom but enjoyed a three-year immunity from relegation as it entered the I-league through the corporate quota (part of AIFF’s incentive scheme to lure corporate investment into the sport).

AFC had won as many or more games than four other clubs in a nine-team league. It eventually lost out on a head-to-head record to Salgaocar. Perhaps symbolically, Aizawl beat DSK both home and away.

After relegation, the club had a wave of sentiment going for it due to its positive approach to matches and its faith in young local players.

That wave was strengthened further in the wake of Aizawl’s dream run to the Federation Cup final—a fairy tale before the fairy tale—which came right after the conclusion of the league. On the road to that final, AFC had accounted for the exits of freshly-crowned champions Bengaluru and Sporting Clube de Goa over two legs. It had proven that it belonged with the big boys.

During the Federation Cup semi-final, a defiant yet softly worded banner in the Aizawl crowd read “Dear AIFF, please judge AFC by points and not money”—part of a statewide rallying cry which involved the chief minister, also the founder of MFA, writing to the federation.

It was a message Royte found inspiration in. “We were committed to proving to the football fraternity that relegation of a better performing club at the cost of immunity of corporate clubs is wrong,” he says.

In September, Aizawl was given a second chance. AIFF’s executive committee reinstated the club to the I-league for its “heart-warming performance”—a rare universally-appreciated decision by the federation.

***

On 20 February this year, Mizo right-winger Laldanmawia Ralte, one of several yields of the MPL, head-tennis’d his way around the goalkeeper to send Aizawl’s packed Rajiv Gandhi Stadium into raptures. If the stadium was loud, AFC’s 1-0 win over East Bengal on the day made a statement that was louder.

It served as a declaration of intent. A victory that was convincing, deserved and mature: AFC didn’t look like conceding after going ahead and had outplayed the opposition. It announced the club as a real title contender, moving the team within a point of East Bengal at the summit and snapping the Kolkata club’s nine-match unbeaten start to the campaign.

Over two seasons, this particular fixture has become a symbol of Aizawl’s evolution. Last year, AFC had deservedly led East Bengal 2-0 with little over 20 minutes left on the clock but conceded thrice to lose. Down to 10 men, it had failed to curb its adventurous play and had left vast spaces in defence. This sort of naivety had endeared Aizawl to its admirers but poor game management had cost them many points.

This season’s AFC is different. A modified squad, with more experience, along with a new head coach, former Mumbai FC man Khalid Jamil, have altered the dynamics. The coach has added much-needed pragmatism to the team but, importantly, has also preserved the club’s expansive style.

“As majority of our players were new to the I-league, I felt that the coach needed to be an experienced one,” says Royte. “When the most experienced coach in the I-league was available, we rushed to him without any second thought.”

Jamil’s appointment had raised quite a few eyebrows. On paper, his expertise in keeping a low-budget club afloat in the top division—eight years with Mumbai—fit Aizawl’s need of the hour, but his methods had not been popular. His Mumbai teams would always be tough to beat but would rarely be a treat to watch, gamesmanship being high on their agenda.

The owner, though, took a more practical view of the situation: “For me, the best style of play is the one which defeats opponents. I don’t discuss with my coach about Mizo style, Spanish style, Indian style or long or short passes.”

As it turns out, he didn’t need to either. On the pitch, Jamil’s Aizawl has remained a fluid team especially at home; its zippy passing still derailing visiting teams. AFC’s home record points to title-winning form: it reads seven wins and one draw. Its away record though? A dampener: only three wins out of seven.

“I really appreciate the hard work he puts in,” says Zadeng who works closely with Jamil on the bench. “He thinks and talks about football all the time. He’s a very accommodating person as well.” Players too have spoken highly of the Kuwait-born coach’s methods and his detailed preparation ahead of games.

Jamil has taught Aizawl how to grind out points when needed. He’s imparted plenty of street-smartness to a unit that used to lose steam when the going got tough late in matches. This reflects in AFC’s modus operandi this season: out-pass opponents in the first half, 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-an-hour of any match this season but those early exchanges have helped the team assert its dominance. Players have reaped the benefits late on: nearly three-quarters of of Aizawl’s goals have come in the second half, including three winners after the 85th-minute mark.

Continuity has been vital to its success. In a way, Jamil has been fortunate that injuries haven’t affected his team’s composition. He has used only 21 players this season (the least in a league that averages 25) and has averaged only a little over one starting eleven change per match (second only to Lajong).

Aside from four foreigners in that group of 21, only three Indians—new signings Jayesh Rane (born in Mumbai), Ashutosh Mehta (Gujarat) and Albino Gomes (Goa)—aren’t from Mizoram.

A part of Aizawl’s winning formula was born out of sheer necessity. Rane, who had made his name as a winger, is now deployed in central midfield alongside Alfred Jaryan, the Liberian who had been the club’s most prolific forward for two years. It’s a makeshift central midfield partnership which, in tandem with attacking midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna of Syria, has become the bedrock of AFC’s success.

“We had a lot of wide players in this squad,” says Rane, the former Mumbai FC player who has followed Jamil to Aizawl. “So the coach thought of playing me in midfield. He knows I’ve played in all the positions except as a stopper (centre-back). It worked, so we went along with it after the opening two games.”

Photo: Hindustan Times

“(Rane and I) have been with the coach for so long,” says Mehta, a right-back by trade who’s also played as a left-winger and left-back this season. “There’s no problem in adapting to new positions under him.”

Both Mehta and Rane have played senior football under the coach for over five years, while Jaryan too had joined Jamil’s Mumbai for a year in 2013. Familiarity here has helped the team’s cause.

Among other heroes this season are young Ivorian forward Kamo Bayi, the club’s top-scorer with six goals; Laldanmawia, a new signing with three vital goals; Brandon Vanlalremdika, who’s been with the club since its rebirth; the first-choice Mizo trio of central defender Zohmingliana Ralte, who has started all matches, and full-backs Lalramchullova and Lalruatthara; and goalkeeper Gomes, who’s become a hit with the locals after his heroics in thwarting Sunil Chhetri’s penalty and another one in the north-east derby versus Lajong.

Still, tough hurdles remain even if destiny is in Aizawl’s own hands. The visit of Mohun Bagan on 22 April in the penultimate round could prove to be a title showdown for the ages. A victory by two or more goals gives AFC the I-league title. Anything less and it goes to the final round, which sees Aizawl travel to neighbouring Shillong—always a difficult away game—while Bagan host Chennai City FC in a relatively easy tie. 

In the meantime, Aizawl continues to dream.

***

“One giant leap!” says Aizawl-born Lalsangliani "Sangi" Ralte, a 27-year-old research scholar, when describing Mizoram football’s progress in nearly 15 years since she started following the sport.

In 2002, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, or Shylo Mama as he’s fondly called, paved the way for Mizos to play at a bigger stage by becoming the first Mizo footballer to play professionally when he was recruited by East Bengal. Mama was 18 then, a young Mizo being broadcast live on television in the national league.

So, is he sort of like the Bhaichung Bhutia of Mizoram, I ask ignorantly, an inspiration for… “No,” Sangi replies, firmly stopping the question dead in its tracks. “Shylo Mama is Shylo Mama. Of Mizoram.” 

He’s a revered figure. It’s believed that no footballer in India has rallied his state quite like Mama has. Today, virtually every football club or grassroots academy running in India has players from Mizoram. 

Forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, the current Indian player of the year, is from Mizoram too. He cited Mama’s influence in a Hindustan Times interview: “All of us dreamt of becoming him, growing up to become pro footballers one day and playing in the I-league.” 

As fate would have it, 15 years since his professional debut and during his second stint with the Kolkata club, Mama played his first national league game in Mizoram in opposition colours. As he walked off the field on being substituted before the hour mark, AFC supporters gave him an unparalleled ovation—one of the iconic moments of the I-league.

“We’re really proud of our Mizo boys,” explains Sangi. “It matters little whether they are playing for an opponent team.” AFC’s first-ever I-league match at home—a 0-1 defeat to Bengaluru in January 2016—saw an inspired display by visiting Mizoram-born goalkeeper Lalthuammawia Ralte, who was declared the best player of the match. “That game was Mizo versus Mizo!” Sangi fondly recalls; the fixture being her standout memory of AFC’s tryst at the national level.

“A Mizo team was being thwarted by a Mizo boy in Mizoram in the national league.” 

A giant leap indeed.

***

In 2010, the Mizoram state government, in sync with its people’s love for the sport, took upon itself to lay artificial football turfs in the state in an otherwise barren land full of muddy fields. It earned recognition from both AIFF and Fifa for its endeavours. First one of these turfs was laid in Aizawl in 2011 at Assam Rifles-owned Lammual Ground—an iconic venue, the birthplace of Mizo footballers. Today, there are nine such turfs across the state.

A year later, the MPL was launched by MFA and its commercial partners Zonet Cable TV. An eight-team round-robin league culminating in two-legged semi-finals followed by a final; the finalists being in line for a place in the I-league 2nd Division. All games are played at Lammual.

MPL became a massive statewide success, with all matches being shown live on television. It has helped in commercializing the sport, making football increasingly viable as a full-time career.

It also provides a fiercely competitive platform for clubs like AFC to strengthen over time. In MPL 2016, played from September to December, Aizawl was beaten 6-2 on aggregate in the semis by Chanmaari FC, the eventual winners, although only three players from its I-league squad played in those matches.

Developments since 2010 showed results even before Aizawl burst onto the scene. The state won its maiden Santosh Trophy title in 2014 and a year later picked up gold for football in the National Games.

“Mizoram is like a European country in terms of its football culture,” says Varun Achreja, who, as founder of consultancy firm Football Solutions, has worked with most clubs in the North-East since 2012. “People spend on club merchandise, shut their shops to go for matches, they buy tickets—there’s even a black market for tickets.”

As far as sustainability in the football business goes, Mizoram is the closest there is in India. The state’s large fan base makes it a worthwhile prospect, with virtually all of a club’s revenue streams contingent on it. Newer clubs in the country have either struggled to generate a local fan base—and subsequently folded up—or spent crores in creating one.

It is also testament to the state’s football structure that AFC’s relegation would only have been a minor financial and emotional hiccup. “So many more people across India today play football compared to a decade ago,” says Achreja, “but there’s little structure to harness the potential. In Mizoram, it’s there.”

“A football-loving kid has avenues to pursue the sport and become a pro footballer. There is a functioning pyramid which starts with village tournaments and ends at the MPL.”

Aizawl FC is a by-product of this pyramid. It isn’t a revolution by itself but the face of one. It serves as a metaphorical megaphone; it draws national attention to the progress made by a neglected state.

***

“Mizos have been in the knowledge map of Indians because of football,” says Royte. “Aizawl FC will be pivotal in mainstreaming Mizoram, and the north-eastern parts of the nation, with mainland India.”

Football is Mizoram’s favourite pastime—there’s no distraction of Bollywood or cricket here. It’s what people identify with. Clubs originate from communities; teams from villages. By nature, Mizos prefer to do things together and playing or watching football fits right in.

AFC has drawn support from Mizos all over India. In Ludhiana, for instance, 250-odd AFC fans watched the 2-2 draw against Minerva Punjab, having travelled overnight from across North India just to get a glimpse of their heroes. Hero worship of young talent is something to behold in these parts of the country.

Traditionally, without a national-level representation, Mizoram players have tended to leave the state seeking greener pastures. Could AFC’s success change all that? “Why not?” replies Zadeng. “Aizawl will become as big and as self-sufficient as other clubs and academies.”

Already, AFC runs several academies across the state, all established after 2013, with its first residential academy being built 45 minutes away from Aizawl. “My investment from my own resources have been more in youth development programs than the senior team,” Royte reveals. “I believe in building teams, not in buying trophies.”

Furthermore, with Rane, Mehta and Gomes succeeding in Aizawl, it may even lead to reverse migration: historically, players from rest of India have been reluctant to risk taking on this massive cultural change.

***

In an ideal world, Aizawl’s feats would open a range of possibilities. But Indian football isn’t that world. If AIFF and its commercial partners IMG-Reliance’s contentious revamp plans are anything to go by, the I-league will essentially be renamed and relegated to second tier by the end of this year.

It will give way to a closed top division—one without relegation or promotion—for another seven years, consisting of eight clubs from the Indian Super League along with the I-league’s big three of Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. An exclusive party to which the likes of Aizawl are not invited.

This means even if AFC miraculously win the league this year, it is likely to be the club’s last appearance in the country’s top division until at least 2024. From relegation to triumph... to relegation again?

So you must revel in this Mizo club’s underdog story till you can. Lap up its romance. Savour it. Share it. For it will be the last time in a long, long time that you’ll be able to witness a fairy tale like Aizawl’s on Indian football’s biggest stage.

All statistics used in this article are compiled by the writer himself.

Akarsh Sharma is a sports traveller and writer who contributes to various publications. His work is collated on akarshsharma.com and he occasionally tweets here.

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