The parody Twitter account @DeludedKhalid describes Khalid Jamil as ‘surviving relegation since 2007.’ The tongue-in-cheek remark, you’d feel, is a tad harsh on Jamil. But there is also an element of truth to it.
Jamil, the Kuwait-born former India international, was perennially fighting for the scraps as Mumbai FC coach. Some say he’d overachieved by just keeping the low-budget club in the top division. His critics argued that under him the team wasn’t ambitious enough and were eager to conclude that his seven years as the handler were a ‘failure’. At the end of last season, Mumbai ran out of patience. The club parted ways with Jamil, who’d virtually built the club from the bottom up, starting as the under-19 coach a decade ago. “Aisa laga kisine mujhe mere ghar se nikal dia,” Jamil says.
Around the same time, Aizawl were relegated to the second division after just one season in the top flight. There is an eternal romance associated with clubs from the North East, but Aizawl’s debut in the I-League was anything but romantic. Their young, untested players suffered stage-fright and consequently, were bundled out of the league.
The boycott of the I-League by Goan teams meant the All India Football Federation did not have enough teams to conduct the 2017 season. So, just to make the numbers, they recalled Aizawl; just a month before the start of the league. With little time to prepare, the Mizoram-based signed Jamil as their coach.
Today, the ‘failed’ team led by a coach who was declared a ‘failure’ is scaring the living daylights out of the heavyweights of Indian football. With only six rounds remaining, Aizawl (26 points) are just one point behind leaders East Bengal on the points table.
Every match day, sceptics have been waiting for this bunch of novices to trip but they have chugged on. They are on a five-match unbeaten run and have almost twice as many points as defending champions Bengaluru FC, who are struggling at fifth with just 16 points.
East Bengal, who are blossoming again under English coach Trevor Morgan, have been unable to beat them. Bengaluru could salvage a draw only because of Sunil Chhetri’s brilliance. Mohun Bagan had to rely on a late goal to snatch three points from them. Aizawl have ran over almost every other team, playing a brand of football that is synonymous with teams from the North East, but hardly an identity of a team coached by Jamil.
Attractive style, packed stands
Mumbai, under Jamil, were at times so defensive it bordered on being boring. The 39-year-old coach used to be mocked for time-wasting tactics when his side was in the lead. Not with Aizawl, though. This side is quick, attack-minded and plays eye-poppingly beautiful football at a venue which is equally breathtaking – surrounded by the Himalayas.
The packed stands, even on weekdays, have added to the atmosphere. “The city breathes football. At the matches, you have men, women, children… everyone coming. So the players are hungry and motivated,” Jamil says.
For the last few years, Mizoram football has been on the up. The impact of their robust local league and the 2014 Santosh Trophy win is visible on Aizawl FC, which wears a unique make-up. Unlike most teams who buy the best talents from across the country, Aizawl have relied on homegrown talents – partly because of the club’s philosophy and partly because they run on a shoestring. The club, owned by a local businessman-cum-politician, operates on a budget of Rs 2 crore. Bengaluru, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan spend at least five times more.
In his squad of 30, Jamil has only seven players from outside the state – four foreigners, two from Mumbai and one from Goa. Incidentally, the two Mumbai-based players – Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta – too were let go by Mumbai FC last year for, as Jamil describes, being ‘Khalid’s boys.’ The duo has been instrumental this season but the focus has been on the Mizo players such as Zohmingliana Ralte, Lalmuankima and youngster Brandon Vanlalremdika.
Most of these players come from humble backgrounds, knowing football is the only way out of poverty as shown by national team striker Jeje Lalpekhlua or Shylo Malsawmtluanga, considered to be among the best footballers the region has produced. “This is a continuation of the Santosh Trophy triumph. Last year, these players were raw. They are better prepared this time,” says Mizoram Football Association secretary Lalnghinglova Hmar.
How well prepared they are will be seen over the next few weeks when Aizawl embark on a tough sequence of matches, most of them away from home. Any talk of Aizawl doing a ‘Leicester’ are still premature. However, Jamil, for once, is happy to be fighting for the title. “When I came here, surviving relegation was the target,” he says. “We have done that. Anything more than that now on is a bonus.”