The game of their lives: Aizawl FC’s fairytale run only part of Mizoram’s obsession with football

Mihir Vasavda travels to the country’s ‘football factory’ and finds there are lessons on how the game should be played, followed and governed.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: June 26, 2018 11:54:30 am

Defender Zotea scores the pivotal goal in the clash against Mohun Bagan at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Aizawl. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

Aizawl FC’s fairytale run is only part of Mizoram’s obsession with football, with every fourth footballer in the I-League hailing from the state. Mihir Vasavda travels to the country’s ‘football factory’ and finds there are lessons on how the game should be played, followed and governed.

The most heart-warming tale that captures Mizoram’s enduring romance with football involves an English soldier. Herbert Vaughan was with the British Army’s Medical Corps when, in 1944, he was posted at what was then the Lunshai Hills.

Every evening, when Vaughan would turn up to play football at the Assam Rifles Ground in Aizawl, better known as the Lammual Stadium, he would draw a crowd. The 18-year-old was a stark contrast to the diminutive Mizos — tall and burly, “thighs as big as their waists”. They would teasingly call him Pu Zama, Mizo for jumbo.

Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Aizawl on the penultimate match day of I-League. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

The locals and the English soldier would share a bond that would be firmly cemented in 1945, when he married a Mizo girl from a prominent political family. He even stayed back in India when the British left, quitting the Army and joining Burma Oil while continuing to play in Mizoram. He returned to his native Sheffield only in 1964. Vaughan though kept himself abreast of the state’s football activities. In 2014, when Mizoram won the Santosh Trophy — the premier national inter-state tournament — he sent a congratulatory message to the team.

But Vaughan’s lasting legacy on football in the region is his contribution to important aspects of the game. The sport was already thriving here when the Englishman arrived in the 1940s but the Mizos knew only one way to play — attack, a footballing ethos that has survived to this day. (The Santosh Trophy win was characterised by the team’s expansive play, a feat replicated in Aizawl FC’s I-League success. In fact, Mizo footballers, cutting across clubs, slotted in the most goals this season.)

Vaughan, a goalkeeper, introduced defending and organisation that had never been a part of the playing parlance here until he turned up. “Football lacked form and there was less knowledge about the sport. He made us understand the tactical and technical aspects of the sport,” says Lalnghinglova Hmar, the secretary of the Mizoram Football Association.

Last January, Vaughan passed away, aged 89. His 27-member family — wife, children and grandchildren — flew down from Sheffield and Spain to fulfill his dying wish: to have his ashes scattered at the Lammual Stadium. Thousands turned up for the ceremony on November 4 last year, to bid goodbye to the Englishman on the very ground he honed his footballing skills.

“It was our way of saying thank you to him. Lammual is the soul of Mizo football. After this, the ground has become even more sacred,” Hmar says.

That’s what football is here. It’s just not an evening diversion; it’s a way of life.

Vaughan’s ashes being scattered at Lammaul stadium, ‘the soul of Mizo football’. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

“Mizoram is a peaceful state. But peace isn’t sexy enough to sell, no? We are a football factory. If you take that away, what identity do we have?” says Remruata Varte.

He isn’t exaggerating. Varte, a former footballer, owns a restaurant a few paces from the Lammual Stadium. Food dominates the early part of the conversation but it inevitably drifts to football.

The Northeast has been the cradle of Indian football for as long as one can remember, but in the past few years, Mizoram has emerged as the single most dominant state in the country. The region, with a population of close to 11 lakh, is the biggest exporter of footballers, with approximately 85 Mizos plying their trade across the country. Fifty-eight of them are in the 10-team I-League alone, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of the total players in the country’s top division.

“It’s the entire system. In Mumbai, people in the adjoining apartments did not know if we were playing a match,” says Khalid Jamil, who managed Mumbai FC for seven years before being appointed Aizawl FC coach last year. “But here, the entire city is involved. The whole place is about football. And if you do something passionately, you are bound to succeed.”

The players aren’t academy-bred either. The feeder ecosystem is almost as natural as it gets. Roads and electricity might still be a problem but in each of Mizoram’s 830 villages, you are sure to find a football team and a ground. There are multiple inter-village tournaments and every match ends with a penalty shoot-out competition for women from the two competing villages.

Aizawl alone has half-a-dozen teams. People just turn up to play at the Lammual pitch and it’s been that way since the 1940s.

While football is a frame of reference, a conversation starter and a cultural catalyst, it may also be, if another local tale is to be believed, an antidote to one of the major scourges plaguing the region. Mizoram, despite being the second most literate state, has a high unemployment rate and grapples with acute drug addiction, owing to its proximity to the Myanmar border. The story goes that, back in the ’90s, a civil servant, S Ronghinglova, learnt of his son’s issues with drugs and decided that football was the best way to deal with it. Ronghinglova, it is said here, identified youngsters with similar issues in his neighbourhood and formed a team, Republic Veng. It went on to play in the Aizawl league and Ronghinglova’s son eventually kicked his drug habit.

Despite football’s infiltration into nearly all facets of Mizo life, the state, for years, didn’t have anything tangible to show for it. It’s a mystery that haunted Hmar, the football association secretary. To rectify this, he came up with a plan that would require changing the entire state’s habits.

Soldiers of the Third Indian Reserve Mizo Battalion, stationed at Bokhakhat in Assam, watch the Mohun Bagan-Aizawl FC match. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

Aizawl is a laid-back capital of a laid-back state. It’s still warming up to modern vices. There isn’t a café or a bar here. No fine-dining restaurant or cozy lounges. No cineplex or shopping mall. And no cricket. The newspapers reach a day late at most places, mobile network is iffy and Internet connectivity remains an issue.

Evenings are spent in front of TV, where Hindi, English, Korean and Chinese shows with Mizo subtitles dominate the screens. The general idea of socialising is to gather at a friend’s place over dinner with some song and dance. By 10, most are tucked in bed — unless there’s a late-night football match to catch.

So, three friends came up with an idea that changed the way Mizos would spend their evenings, and in the process, also alter the state’s footballing fortunes. They combined two of the state’s most favourite things — football and TV — to create a product, the Mizoram Premier League (MPL), which several states across the country now grudgingly admire.

The MPL, which began in 2012, is the only local league in the country that has been able to sell broadcast rights. Even the country’s premier tournament, the I-League, is shown on TV for free.

The MPL rights have been bought by L V Lalthantluanga, the chairman of Mizoram’s biggest local cable network, who pays the association Rs 25 lakh a year to broadcast the league. Hmar handles the technical aspect while the third member, Mapuia, is in charge of the commercial arm of the league. Luckily for the trio, the Mizoram government’s decision to lift liquor prohibition helped land a sponsor — an alcohol brand.

The league, which has eight teams, still suffers a loss of Rs 10 lakh a year, but in footballing terms, it’s been a runaway success. It has provided the local players the platform to showcase their skills and has created hundreds of jobs, a critical aspect in a state with high unemployment.

The MPL also hastened the state’s ascent in the sport. Mizoram won the Santosh Trophy in 2014 and reached the semifinals in the next two editions. It is the reigning sub-junior national champion and is now home to the I-League champions.

“Earlier, football was only about kicking around any open space. But now, every kid aspires to play for his village team in the MPL,” says Aizawl FC’s star midfielder Brandon Vanlalremdika. “For those who do not play, it has become a source of entertainment.”

The MPL also ensured that Aizawl suddenly had a night life. Thousands turn up at Lammual for every match and those who don’t make it, watch on TV, where it is shown live, in high definition (HD). Post match, it is common for crowds to gather in pockets of their villages or in the city centre and talk about the game. “At least we have a good way to spend our evenings. Earlier, there wasn’t much to do,” says 19-year-old Rini Ralte. Asked which club she supports, the answer is prompt: “I am Aizawl FC.”

A widely held theory is that the decline of Indian football began sharply with the advent of cable television. Till then, fans consumed what they were fed. But television showed up just how poor the quality in India was and the faithful were prompt to ditch the local game. In Mizoram, however, it is the other way round. When Mizos saw themselves on TV, they say they couldn’t believe how good they were.

There are few seats even in the hillock and water-tank overlooking the stadium. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

The most striking aspect is the tempo at which the game is played here. The philosophy is simple: the ball has to be won, it has to go forward and at great speed. The Mizo speed in possession and dribbling is remarkable. “They are quick and have great ball control. At times, they hold on to the ball a little longer than they should because they want to showcase their skills, but it’s okay. When you have the skills, why not show them?” Aizawl FC’s Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna says, smiling. “They are also strong, which is surprising because they are small.”

One of the secrets to their style, historian Michael Hmingthanpuia believes, lies in the Mizo love for music. “They have rhythm in their blood. Mizos are fond of dancing, and the way they play is very similar to dancing,” says Michael, who has done a thesis on the social history of Mizoram sport since the colonial period.

Football as a sport was introduced to Mizo society by its men in battle fatigues. “A few Mizo men served in World War 1 as a part of the Labour Corps and were stationed in France,” Michael says. While serving in Paris, the Corps stumbled upon the sport and continued to play after returning to India. Because there was no leather ball available here, they used serprok, a local fruit almost the size of a football, instead. The game evolved over the years but it took proper shape only after Assam Rifles entered the scene. Vaughan, of course, was one of those key behind the development.

Till the 1960s, football vied with hockey for attention and it was only when government units began offering jobs to footballers that the sport gained in precedence, before acquiring the number one status.

The game, however, had no professional underpinnings until the turn of the century when Shylo Malsawmtluanga, a local icon popularly known as Mama, began to play outside the state. The East Bengal player showed Mizos that they could not just play football outside their state, but also thrive. He also provided the rest of the country a glimpse of the talent in the region. Soon, scouts began making the long journey up the hills to identify raw local talent.

Today, Jeje Lalpekhlua, from the tiny village of Hnahthial, is one of the most sought-after strikers in the country and is touted as India captain material. His popularity here is unparalleled, as was evident in Aizawl’s penultimate match of the I-League season. Jeje, who plays for Mohun Bagan, was in Aizawl for the title-deciding tie when, in the run up to the match, WhatsApp messages began doing the rounds, in which fans urged Jeje to “understand” if they jeered him in case he scored a goal against their Mizo side that was vying to be the first national champion from the Northeast.

Plus, these days, Aizawl FC has its own stars: midfielder Brandon Vanlalremdika, who was raised by a single mother; Laldanmawia Ralte, who hails from the tiny Sialhawk village that is barely 30 km from Myanmar; and Zohmingliana Ralte, a.k.a. Zotea, the scorer of perhaps Aizawl’s most important goal this season.

These are some of the players no club in India wanted. Now, they are one of the biggest stories in Indian football. Fairytale is one way of describing it. Another, more appropriate, way is to view this as a victory of silent perseverance. “This hasn’t come overnight for them. In Mizoram, they have worked hard for years to get processes in place and form a proper system, which everyone follows. The entire state has benefited from it, which is visible in Aizawl’s success,” Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen says.

One of the country’s least populous states helped script Indian football’s biggest story. In having done so, it’s also showing how the sport should be played, followed and governed.

Even the torrential rain failed to dampen the mood. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

On the evening of April 29, everything that you normally associate with Mizo football was on display. You could feel the stands of the breathtaking Rajiv Gandhi Stadium vibrate as the 11,000-odd fans erupted in joy.

It was Mizoram at its beautiful, delightful best. Chilly winds blowing from the mist-covered mountains shrouded a stadium rocked by song, dance and football. They bounced in cohesion, singing Aizawl Football Club’s theme song. It’s a catchy number in Mizo, sung to the tune of ‘When you’re happy and you know it’ and is accompanied by raucous clapping of hands.

The energy from the stands transcended onto the field, where the pint-sized Aizawl FC players grew in stature against the mighty Mohun Bagan in the penultimate match of the I-League. This was the region’s biggest match and Aizawl wasn’t going to let a torrential downpour that had caused landslides in some parts of the city to dampen the mood.

The massive crowd waited anxiously for the pivotal goal, and when it came in the 83rd minute, it was doubly sweet. It was a Mizo who did the scoring: defender Zotea heading midfielder Al Amna’s corner kick past the goalkeeper.

The sky had been growling all day but it would be eclipsed by the thunderous roar from the stands — the echo of which could be heard all the way up from Salem Veng, through the narrow, steep streets of Chhinga Veng, to the main square in Chanmari and the Zarkawt market, all the way down the mountains to Bokhakhat in Assam, where officers and soldiers of the Third Indian Reserve Mizo Battalion took the afternoon off and watched their team create history.

Children sport Aizawl FC jerseys at Salem Veng, Aizawl. (Express photo by Mihir Vasavda)

Last Sunday, Aizawl finished the job in Shillong, earning the point they needed to be crowned champions. Thousands choked the streets to welcome their heroes the following day. The men from the hills had scaled unprecedented heights.

All this in a club formed on February 14, 1984. Talk about football and romance!

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