Yahan clouds mera sunta hai. Half time mein bola unko jao, toh woh chala gaya. (The clouds here listen to me. At half time, I told them to disappear, so they did).” Of course, Khalid Jamil was joking. Or was he? Such is Jamil’s pull over his players and the city of Aizawl that they are willing to do anything he says. “We will build his statue, right in middle of the town,” says a woman dressed in an Aizawl t-shirt and the team’s colours painted on her cheeks.
Aizawl did not quite get the job done. They won, but got one less. Now, to be crowned I-League champions, the Mizo side will have to make a short journey to the neighbouring state Meghalaya next weekend and ensure they do not lose to Shillong Lajong. Their fans — the 11,203 inside the stadium and a couple of thousand on the hillock overlooking the ground – didn’t bother to wait for another week. The replica trophies were already being hoisted in the stands.
One of them somehow reached Zohmingliana Ralte, who without giving much thought, held aloft and kissed it as if it was the actual one. Ralte was Aizawl’s surprise hero of the afternoon. In the 83rd minute, the 5’6” defender leapt over his tall Mohun Bagan counterparts and nodded the ball past an onrushing Debjit Majumdar. The net bulged and decibel levels soared. Aizawl’s dream lives on. Rather, it got more real.
They were starting to get a bit edgy in the stands. The whole of Mizoram had been preparing itself for Saturday, 2pm, the entire week. But while daydreaming, they did not factor in their opponents. And the reality hit them barely seconds before kickoff. “It’s Bagan…” they exhaled. This was I-League’s oldest club taking on the youngest. The most-decorated side in the history of Indian football against a side with little history.
Mohun Bagan’s one player – Haitian Sony Norde — costs much more than the whole Aizawl squad strung together. Even going purely by football logic, Bagan are much, much stronger than Aizawl. They have some of country’s best players in each position and their form made them the favourites to win the title. All these facts began to sink in as the match kicked off and it took Bagan just three minutes to slice open Aizawl defence. Norde, one of the best foreign players in the league, played Daryl Duffy in. The Scot’s shot was palmed away by Aizawl goalkeeper Albino Gomes.
Almost on cue, the skies growled, lightening flashed and heavens opened up (again). With the stadium wrapped in fog, the crowd could barely manage to spot the players. Thank heavens they couldn’t. Bagan were on top, smothering Aizawl’s forward and towering over their tiny defenders. But the mist was so heavy that even Bagan couldn’t do much. Somehow, the first half remained goalless.
Underdogs generally win when they choose not to play by Goliath’s rules. Aizawl are at their best when they are allowed to pass the ball along the ground, and attack using the wings. Bagan did not allow them to play wide, and choked them for space. Aizawl were happy not to concede. But they had to score to have any hopes of winning the title. During the break, before Jamil had ‘the talk’ with the clouds, he instructed his players to break free.
Mahmoud Al Amna, their Syrian midfielder, was told to play in a more advanced role in the midfield; Jayesh Rane, one of the three non-Mizos amongst Aizawl’s Indian players, was given the license to run up and down on the wings without worrying to fall back; defender Ashutosh Mehta was given the responsibility to shadow Norde; Liberian striker Alfred Jaryan was instead told to help the midfield while the team’s top scorer Kamo was the lone forward.
When Jamil says, they listen. Suddenly, Aizawl were transformed. This was their ground and Bagan would have to play by their rules. Aizawl pressed, not giving Bagan any time on the ball. The Mariners kept losing the ball, Aizawl ran so fast it was almost they had guzzled a few gallons of fuel at the half-time break. The crowd, too, found its voice. “we want a goal,” they demanded in unison every time Aizawl darted forward. And in the 83rd minute, their fearless play was finally rewarded.
Whoever is writing this script has thought it out pretty well. A former Bagan youth player all but ending Bagan’s chances; a North Eastern club winning the title at a North Eastern derby (if, Aizawl draw or win. IF); and Jamil on the brink of a title while his former club Mumbai FC, who unceremoniously sacked him, on the verge of being relegated to second division. Their job isn’t done yet, but Aizawl know it’ll take something extraordinary for them to lose the title from here. It’s only today the club has started to believe they can be champions. Ask him if there would be any celebrations, Jamil curtly replies: “Itna toh kar lia (referring to the wild scenes in the stands post match). Aur kitna party, next week match hai. (We’ve partied enough. There’s a match to be played next week.” This time, he wasn’t joking.