As far as Indian football is concerned, Mizoram has remained nothing more than a stat. And not just in terms of the number of players it has produced. Being one of the smallest regions in terms of area and population, the involvement of the tiny North-Eastern state has been restricted only to the pilot projects conducted by FIFA and All India Football Federation (AIFF) ahead of launching country-wide developmental programmes.
Manipur and Sikkim have always gotten away with being the leading lights of the region. But it’s Mizoram where the most effective revolution has been silently taking place.
On Sunday, they reinforced this point after being crowned the national football champions for the first time by beating Railways 3-0 in a one-sided final of the Santosh Trophy.
It’s tempting to term it as a fluke but Mizoram’s triumph is a culmination of a decade of hard work, overcoming the challenges posed by almost negligible infrastructure and the language barrier. In the last fortnight, they have asserted the point by brushing aside challenges from domestic giants like Kerala, Maharashtra, Manipur and Tamil Nadu en route to their maiden title.
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“So far, we did not have the results to back up our potential. But in the last few years, we have worked very hard. Our growth was not noticed by the national media,” says Lalnghinglova Hmar, the general secretary of Mizoram Football Association.
Barring a brief upswing in the 1980s, when a semi-professional league consisting of government units was formed, the state has had no structure despite the game ranking high in public interest.
Shlo Malsawmtluanga, considered to be the pioneering professional in Mizo football, says the conservative mindset of the locals too hampered the growth. “It was tough to believe that you could make football a profession; playing the game was considered waste of time and everyone stressed on studies,” Shlo says.
It isn’t surprising, considering that Mizoram has a 92 percent literacy rate, highest in India after Kerala.
But despite the high literacy, language has been a roadblock. The majority Christian population speaks only Mizo, very few can talk in English and even less in Hindi. “So even though the players were talented, they lacked confidence in venturing out of the state,” Shlo adds.
Lack of corporate backing and professional clubs almost spelled the death knell for the local game. The game’s custodians back then did not feel they were good enough to compete with the rest of the country and whenever they sent the team for a tournament, they got thrashed.
But the landscape slowly changed. In 2002, Shlo became the first footballer from the state to sign a professional contract with a NFL team (East Bengal). The following year, their under-16 team won the Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy, their first-ever domestic title at any level. Nearly half-a-dozen players from that team were picked in the junior national team and one of them, Zaidin Mawin, went on to captain the junior India team.
These incidents triggered development, which reached its peak in the last five years. From having virtually no proper ground to play football, the state now boasts of four artificial turfs sponsored by the state government.
Improved facilities resulted in a proper local structure and in 2012, the Mizoram Premier League was established, which consists of eight teams and is telecast live on local television.
“This (Santosh Trophy win) is a direct result of having a strong league. In fact, we are also reigning junior national champions, which is a testimony to our robust developmental program,” Hmar says. The impact is also visible on the national scene. Around 20 players from Mizoram play for different clubs in the I-League with Dika and Dempo’s Jeje Lalpekhlua being the most prominent faces. And in the under-19 Asian Championships last October, five players in the squad of 23 were from Mizoram.
“In fact, the likes of Dika and Jeje are not even the best players we have. They are the fortunate ones who got the break. There are many other good players who do not get the chanceto play at the higher level,” Hmar says.