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 continued…