As you settle down for your Indian Premier League/English Premier League fix this Sunday evening, know that the final chapter of potentially one of the greatest underdog stories in Indian sport will be unfolding on a channel not so far away.
Aizawl FC from Mizoram, who weren’t even supposed to play in the I-League this season, stand on the brink of winning the title ahead of Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and defending champions Bengaluru FC. All they need is a point in their final game against Shillong Lajong to be crowned the most unlikely champions in Indian football history—our own Leicester City (who stunned the footballing world by winning the English Premier League last season).
Details of Aizawl’s rise from obscurity have been captured beautifully in a 15 April article on Mint On Sunday, “The Fairy Tale Rise Of Aizawl FC". It’s the road ahead that’s more intriguing, especially if they do manage to seal the title.
For those who’ve missed it, the Indian football landscape has seen seismic changes over the last few years, ever since the introduction of the Indian Super League (ISL)—an eight-team tournament that was born in IMG-Reliance’s boardrooms and runs outside the country’s traditional league structure, in its own parallel universe.
It’s a successful parallel universe. Television ratings are high, as is attendance at most venues. The suits in marketing departments who put this together have got something right, even if there’s a lot about the ISL that irritates traditional football fans (what sort of football league has play-offs and finals to pick a winner?).
Over the last 12 months, IMG-Reliance has been in talks with the All India Football Federation about making ISL the top league in the country, and demoting the I-League to a second division of sorts. Bargaining from a position of power, they also want to protect their eight franchises. So even if they do open the doors to a couple of the big clubs, they are insisting that the ISL will remain a closed group for at least seven years—no ISL franchise will stand the risk of relegation, and no I-League team will have a shot at promotion.
Followers of football find this ridiculous, but the suits argue that this is to guard against a situation in which Abhishek Bachchan’s team, or Sachin Tendulkar’s or Sourav Ganguly’s, does badly and drops out of the big league. If this glamour quotient is one of the pillars on which the ISL has built its success, why should it risk losing even a tiny bit of that?
The conversation around assimilating I-League teams into the ISL has so far been restricted to the big names—Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal. The small teams aren’t in the picture at all.
Which is why it will be interesting to see what happens if Aizawl seal the I-League title. As of now, if the merger does happen as proposed, Aizawl will remain in the second tier for the next seven years despite scripting one of India’s great sporting miracles.
Agreed, the ISL is a marketing success. To be able to market the tournament, the ISL needs big teams, it needs glamour. But flip that for a second…yes, the ISL needs big names, needs glamour. Aizawl may be tiny, but Aizawl’s story is a marketing executive’s dream.
Rags to riches. Underdogs to superheroes. The suits could make a movie about this….
They could even get their team owners to star in it.
Until now, the ISL has based its plans and demands on its convictions—that only one or two I-League teams can add any value to what it has built. Aizawl has thrown an interesting curve ball in its direction. Will it see it? Can it grab it?
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.