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Aizawl FC-The Leicester of India?

Photo: Aizawl FC
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Aizawl FC- The tale of a Phoenician ascension

Over the last decade, the North East region of India has experienced a greater surge in footballing interest. Be it the flamboyance of Bhaichung Bhutia or the more recent heroics of Jeje Lalpekhlua, North East has always managed to enlighten the national stage over the last few years.

Stadium Lamulal
Photo: LNTUP

A travel to this part of the country will certainly yield an unique experience. Clad in t-shirts and shorts, one can notice the sheer passion that exists with a torn football at their feet. Unlike the rest of the country where cricket is a dominant sport, running all day long with a ball at your feet certainly seems out of context. But when you consider their historical significance, things seem to fall in place. Despite being a part of the greater Indian territory, their uniqueness has always been remarkable. The major invasions of the subsequent centuries have hardly left any major impact on their roots and culture until of course the British invasion (which also failed to leave any major impact). This uniqueness imbued with passion has certainly made its way into the footballing folklore.

In spite of all the craze for the game, success on the field has been limited. Except for the occasional success of Manipur and Sikkim in the Santosh Trophy, achievements have been few and far between. The likes of Shillong Lajong, Rangdajied United and United Sikkim FC have all tested their mettle but success has been fleeting. Despite all the perceived disappointment, the unfolding and the ongoing story of one club, in particular, has certainly come a long way in changing that notion. Aizawl Football Club.

Khalid Jamil
Photo: IBM

At the start of the current season, when Khalid Jamil was appointed as the head coach of Aizawl FC, many were surprised. For a man who has spent seven long seasons with Mumbai FC, helping them stay competitive in a rather fleeting natured league and win the regional title of Mumbai Elite Divison – Khalid Jamil and Mumbai FC have been synonymous throughout and a move out of the club was certainly unexpected.

As a player, Jamil was one of the most notable footballers. A man known for sticking to his roots, perceived notions and values, he defied the temptation to play for the big clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan as they were associated with wine companies (Mohun Bagan is sponsored by McDowell’s and East Bengal by Kingfisher – both headed by Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries Group). This spoke volumes of the man. Defying the allurance of potential stardom over one’s belief is something of a rarity in today’s life.

The widespread belief at the start of the season was that Khalid Jamil was a ‘defensive coach” – one who encouraged his players to sit deep, carve out hard fought wins and draws and help remain somewhere in the middle half of the table. So, when he joined the Mizoram-based club, thoughts of relegation were prevalent.

Aizawl FC
Photo: I league

In the 2015-16 season, their debut season in the top flight, Aizawl FC were relegated to the second division after finishing 8th in a 9 club league.But their performance in the Federation Cup earned them great plaudits as they battled their way into the finals only to loose out to a dominant Mohun Bagan side.That was not the end of their fairytale run, though. The story would gain more ground when they were instantly promoted back to the I-League.

Before the start of the current season, the All India Football Federation were dealt a huge blow as regular top-flight clubs – Salgaocar FC, Sporting Clube De Goa and Pune FC would all withdraw their names from the I-League owing to financial instability and administrative woes.

The AIFF then decided to promote Aizawl FC along with DSK Shivajians who were given relegation immunity for three years. What followed was less expected. While DSK Shivajians sit 7th on the league table, Aizawl is currently on the top of the league with 30 points from 14 matches. The season started with an away draw against title contenders East Bengal.

Aizawl FC
Photo: AIFF

Criticisms were heavy as the Kolkata club only managed to equalise at the turn of the 90th minute. But as the league progressed, Aizawl’s dominance was felt. They defeated East Bengal in the return fixture courtesy a solitary Laldanmawia strike. The game with Mohun Bagan wasn’t less dramatic either as they came back twice from the back only to loose out to a Darryl Duffy penalty in the dying minutes of the match.

As the current season approaches its business end, Aizwal FC sits atop. Their clinical and adaptive style of play has impressed many and stunned others. For a club that was formed with an aim to provide education and sports training facilities to the lesser fortunate people of Mizoram and one that only turned professionals.

The club has not only come a long way in helping its people but has gone beyond in representing them on the bigger stage as they continue to write one of the most remarkable chapters in footballing history.Nobody knows what the season end table will look like, but the football fraternity.

But the football fraternity of the land is surely witnessing something unprecedented. The day is not far maybe when Aizawl will be termed ‘The Leicester of India’ and Jamil ‘The Ranieri’. That really would be the poetic justice. At the end of the day we all have a little baby sleeping inside us who wants to see fairytales!