A team of rejects and unknowns, managed by a coach who was sacked for under-performing last year, scripted one of the biggest underdog stories in Indian sport on Sunday. 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.
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.
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As a last-minute fix, the club appointed former India international Khalid Jamil as their coach. 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.
One of Aizawl’s best players, Mahmoud al Amna, is an under-rated midfielder from war-ravaged Aleppo. Amna would frequently be updated about suicide attacks and blasts in his neighborhood, which killed several of his friends. On the day of the chemical attack in Syria, Amna was preparing for his club’s biggest match – against defending champions Bengaluru FC. Unlike other clubs who go talent hunting around the country, Aizawl relied on local talents, besides their usual foreign quota. Apart from three players (two from Mumbai, one Goan), all Indian players in the squad are from Mizoram.
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.
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. 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.