Behind Mizoram’s clean sweep of the football national championship lies an extraordinary league, sustained efforts, and slow and steady progress. ADAM HALLIDAY on how the state laid the ground for its maiden Santosh Trophy
TILL two-three years ago, Aizawl’s main square Zodin would empty out by evening. A few sentries guarding the Assam Rifles’ compound gate and a handful of straggling youngsters in youthful defiance as the city turned in early for the night would be the only ones hanging around.
On most nights these days, there is hardly a place more bustling with activity in Mizoram’s capital. Hundreds of parked motorcycles line the winding roads that meet at Zodin, while the air fills up with chants, songs and cheers from fans in club jerseys and painted faces. They are all headed for Lammual, Mizoram’s oldest and best-known football field, lit up with floodlights and laid with sleek new astro-turf.
Behind Mizoram’s crowning as national football champions on March 9, after an unbeaten run through the Santosh Trophy, lie this ground, this change, and another, unheralded success story — of the Mizoram Premier League (MPL).
All 20 members of the Santosh Trophy winning team, which beat former champions Indian Railways 3-0 in the final, are MPL players. So are the team’s three coaches and one physiotherapist.
“I can say there was an element of madness to the proposal,” laughs Lalnunpuia, 28, talking of how MPL originated. The success is certainly unbelievable given that the league came into being only in 2012, and has not finished even two seasons so far.
More than a decade ago, Lalnunpuia and close friend L V Lalthantluanga (a.k.a Tato), sons of Mizoram’s well-known media pioneers K Sapdanga and Vanneihtluanga respectively, had set up a television network company called Zonet Cable TV Pvt Ltd. In 2012, they approached the Mizoram Football Association (MFA) with an idea. They proposed a five-year contract under which the MFA would organise a professional football league and their network would pour in Rs 1.25 crore into it, in exchange for exclusive rights to telecast the matches live. Zonet hoped to get in sponsors, and promised to foot the entire bill otherwise (it is currently pitching in half the budget). Within months, the league had started falling into place.
Living up to its side of the bargain, the state government laid astro-turf on two of Aizawl’s main football fields, including Lammual and Rajiv Gandhi Stadium Stadium at Mualpui, and equipped them with floodlights, with Sports Minister Zodintluanga and MFA president Lal Thanzara putting their weight behind the project. It helped that Thanzara was then a parliamentary secretary and is now Minister of State handling a dozen portfolios, nine of them assisting his elder brother Lal Thanhawla, Mizoram’s five-time chief minister. It was Thanhawla who set up the MFA back in 1973.
Lalnunpuia and Lalthantluanga, 29, have both been football players, though as Lalnunpuia says, he never had the same potential as his partner. He also credits Lalthantluanga with all the behind-the-scenes work.
“Honestly, we did not have that much money to spare and there was only a slim chance there would be financial returns,” Lalnunpuia says. “But we knew Mizo youth had potential and all they needed was a platform and opportunity… Maybe in the back of our minds there was hope that our boys would attain glory and that, maybe, it would shine the spotlight on the league.”
That would prove an understatement. The response was overwhelming. With Zonet showing MPL matches, complete with post-match interviews and match analyses, and Mahindra Two Wheelers pledging to partly sponsor the seasons, the league soon became the biggest televised sporting event in Mizoram’s history. Sporting company Nivea officially launched an MPL ball ahead of the second season last year.
Not just Mizos, but two players from Manipur and West Bengal and six foreign players (from Japan, Cameroon and Nigeria) now play in the league’s eight teams. The prize catch is Belgian coach-cum-player Phillippe De Ridder, credited with getting East Bengal back on track in the mid-2000s and leading it to the top of Indian football.
Mizoram’s love for football goes a long way back. Before the cable television revolution, entire villages would squeeze themselves into the rare living rooms with TV sets to watch the FIFA World Cup, despite the flickering Doordarshan signal or that caught from nearby Bangladesh after constant tuning of rickety metal antennas.
In the 1980s, various government departments — police, public works and public health engineer departments, in particular — patronised the sport and built up clubs that attracted the state’s top talent. In response, some of Aizawl’s well-off businessmen and wealthy families teamed up to form the first privately owned Aizawl FC, buying players from government-backed clubs.
“They were way ahead of their time. There was no prize money, no regular pay for players, and the highlight was that thousands of us would gather to watch football at Lammual,” recalls MFA general secretary Lalnghinglova Hmar, better known as Tetea.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, as cable TV brought in live telecast of European football tournaments, the fandom hit a new high. English clubs’ fans wear their loyalties on flags and banners that adorn inter-state and intra-state maxicabs, English Premier League news fills up the state’s newspapers, while youths are known to adopt Facebook names such as ‘Gunner’, ‘Gooner’, ‘Chelsea’ and ‘Liverpool’.
The captain of the 2014 Santosh Trophy winning team, Zico Zoremsanga, is named after Brazilian football legend Zico, not an uncommon name in Mizoram, along with the Peles and the Maradonas.
The popularity of the sport gave birth in 1985 to an annual tournament by the Young Mizo Association (YMA), a powerful cultural group. Teams were formed along neighbourhood and village lines. The matches drew huge turnouts and stoked passionate rivalries.
Another major tournament called Red Ribbon followed. It was part of a multi-media campaign against AIDS and drug abuse, supported by AIDS control societies and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But even the three Red Ribbon inter-village tournaments between 2009 and 2012 saw astounding numbers — the first had 202 teams with 4,664 players participating, the last featured 222 teams and 4,440 players.
People from far-flung villages would head towards the capital for these matches with bedding and football boots and stay at people’s homes that temporarily functioned as dorms. Players would do odd jobs between matches to provide for meals.
A league such as MPL was always a step away.
It was also around the time of the YMA and Red Ribbon tournaments that Mizoram produced its first professional footballer — S Malsawmtluanga. Belonging to a small village in Mizoram’s south, he was picked up by reputed clubs such as East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and played alongside Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia in several international tournaments.
As several others made a name for themselves in Malsawmtluanga’s wake, the rest of the country began waking up to Mizoram’s potential. The Mizoram team won the 1998 U-19 National Football Championships (NFC) in Shillong, the 2003 U-16 NFC in Aizawl, the 2004 U-16 NFC in Goa and most recently the 2013 49th Junior NFC for B C Roy Trophy in Jharkhand.
“Those were all respectable achievements, but were all junior-level championships. We at the MFA knew that unless we won a senior-level tournament, we would never be recognised as a football powerhouse. That’s why, for many years now, our topmost priority has been the Santosh Trophy,” says Hmar.
“That’s when MPL came and everything changed,” he adds. The league meant that players no longer played for only a few weeks between long breaks, and that they could consider playing the game professionally.
MPL’s mission statement lays out strict criteria for the participating clubs:
a) Professionalise local football: An MPL club must register itself as a society and have a minimum of Rs 4 lakh in its bank account, with at least Rs 1 lakh coming from commercial sponsors. To encourage youths who play the game with almost zero financial incentive, a club has to sign a contract with each and pay a minimum of
Rs 3,000 per season.
b) Build a local market: Rs 30 a ticket is charged during league matches and
Rs 50 for the finals, with the gains from ticket sales split between the MFA and clubs. All except two MPL clubs have taken to merchandising club jerseys, as well as key chains, mufflers and T-shirts.
c) Youth development and keeping grassroots football alive: MPL is linked to all of MFA’s eight district-level entities. First-division district-level clubs have a chance to enter MPL through playoffs, where the top club automatically replaces the worst club of the last season, and the runner-up plays against the second worst to find a place in the next MPL season.
“This ensures district-level clubs have something to aim for. We already have one club like this in the league,” says Lalnunpuia.
MPL also makes it mandatory for each of its final eight clubs in the league to have an U-17 club, with a parallel U-17 league for these. Besides, at least three players in each team in a match line-up have to be below 19 years of age.
To ensure a steady stream of youngsters filling the ranks, the MFA has in place an impressive grassroots training programme. In October 2012, FIFA instructor Scott O’Donnel arrived in Aizawl to coach 28 trainers, who are now training 6-12-year-olds. Two months later, the All India Football Federation’s technical director Rob Baan opened another grassroots course. Since May 2013, every district has been holding football courses under the MFA’s district entities.
In what may be the result of these efforts, last week, four coaches — two from English club Liverpool FC and two from Pune’s DSK Shivajiyan FC — arrived in Aizawl to scout for U-19 and U-17 players to coach at a new football academy in Pune. Mizoram was their first stop in a country-wise hunt.
At the zonal qualifier of the Santosh Trophy on January 31, which had Mizoram and Manipur battling it out for the final round in Siliguri, the crowds were unprecedented, says Lalthanzama Vanchhawng, an MPL commentator.
“People were sitting on every spare inch of space Lammual could offer. They were on tree branches, on the flyover outside. The audience even spilled into the commentator’s box. Children were sitting at my feet, between the microphone and me.” Roars and singing swept up Aizawl every time the Mizoram team scored and when the team finally won 3-0.
When the players took the leap from that undefeated zonal run to the Santosh Trophy win in Siliguri, Mizoram turned out in strength to celebrate. Mindful of the model code of conduct for the Lok Sabha elections, Governor Vakkom B Purushothaman took the permission of the Election Commission to declare March 12, the day the team arrived home from Kolkata, as a state holiday. Whoever can must be a part of the welcome party was the governor’s unequivocal message.
By the time the team landed at Lengpui Airport at 12.30 pm, and emerged with the trophy held aloft, thousands in red shirts had gathered at the terminal, waving red flags (the team’s colour) and dancing and singing the team’s theme song Lalpa’n thil ropui min tihsak e (The Lord has done something great for us), to the accompaniment of a brass band and the traditional Mizo khuang (drum).
“You may find it strange, but we did not celebrate that much in Siliguri. We went back to where we were staying, had our dinner, chatted and slept. We were saving the celebrations for when we got home. We knew a big party was awaiting us,” said Zico in an interview later on.
With a traffic police SUV and two siren-mounted motorcycles in the lead and a convoy of 100-odd Royal Enfield motorcycles behind, the team was driven through 31 km of highway in the open back of a truck to Aizawl. Tens of thousands more lined up the streets in the city, to cheer the champions.
Lammual, where the cavalcade ended, was set for a night-long celebratory concert. As the late afternoon sun turned the ground yellow, Tetea took the stage. “We all know how big India is. We know how many people there are in India. And we know how small and remote our state is, and how so few of us are there,” he said. “But we are the champions! We are the champions!”