What an amazing time to be living in if you're a Mizo or a fan of local football here in India. Aizawl FC did the unthinkable – they had just been crowned India's Football champions! They're also the first club from the North East to win this coveted title.
[image source: inkhel.com]
I'm not going to write a match report on Aizawl FC's road to the trophy as there are a lot of great sportswriters out there who have already covered that, I really suggest you read their articles. Bhargab Sarmah's pre-Finals article Aizawl FC, Khalid Jamil and the making of I-League's greatest underdog story is one of them. Abhijit Barali explains about the complication regarding the AIFF-Reliance merger that could send the champions back to second division. Other related pieces include Vaibhav Raghunandan's article How Aizawl FC broke the Indian football order at dailyO and Rutvick Mehta's article Aizawl's dream is AIFF's nightmare at DNA. And then there were articles such as this at HuffPo where Aizawl FC fans were seen cleaning the stadium after the match, winning the hearts of everyone. I know I didn't do squat, I wasn't even there at the stadium, but it just made me so damn proud of my people! *hugz*
There are many other great articles out there about Aizawl FC becoming the latest Indian Football champs, as this news is not just covered nationally but internationally as well. Below is a video coverage from Football Daily! (video plays from 3:47)
ESPN also did an extensive coverage ranging from how Aizawl FC won the championship to what the quest for 'one league' means for Aizawl FC. Do take a look at this video of the team being welcomed by the people of Mizoram -
All in all, yeah, like I said earlier, it is an awesome feeling to be a Mizo right now :)
The best part about all this is, I have come across so many non-Mizos who became a fan of Aizawl FC! I'm not even talking about other Northeasterners, I have met people from Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal etc both online and offline who cheered for Aizawl FC. Everybody loves a good underdog story, and this is definitely one of them.
In fact a lot of people compared Aizawl FC's achievement to that of Leicester City FC. I beg to differ. Yes both had an emotional and overwhelming underdog story, but while Leicester City were promoted to the Premier League and won the title the next year, Aizawl FC were relegated and later included in the league due to Goan clubs pulling out of the league and then won the title the same season! That is by far a much greater glory in my books.
To me it kinda feels like relegated Aizawl FC were added back to the league out of sheer pity, especially since the club had one of the most passionate Away supporters across India. Maybe the suits sitting in their big penthouse smoking their cigars and eating their caviars were thinking, "Heck, let's just promote this Aizwaal team again, they're not gonna make any dent on our future merger plan, as long as MB, EB or BFC wins the title, all izz good. Plus the diversity from their Home and Away fans will add some good masala to our TV viewers. Good TRP. Show me the money! Kaching!"
And then Aizawl FC came along and said, "Challenge Accepted. BOOOYAAAAH!" along with a few other words that Samuel L Jackson would say. :)
Ahhhhhh what an amazing ride it had been. I watched the last match versus Lajong at my friend Sanga's place here in Pune, as he had invited a couple of Mizo students from Spicer college to come over to his house to watch the live telecast. We were actually planning to watch a live screening of the match at Aufside Sports Bar, Swargate, as a lot of other Mizos would be there too, but Sanga later said these students didn't have a place to watch the game and so he played the good host. I love how our tlawmngaihna seems to be everywhere.
The entire 90+ minutes we were just glued to the TV. I mean I couldn't even sit down, lolz. We cheered so hard when we equalized (and also for that other goal which was contentiously declared as offside). I almost got a heart attack during extra time when Lajong nearly scored! We danced and jumped in joy at the final whistle, just like all the other Mizos at the stadium or those watching the match on TV.
Lajong played really well. Before the match there were a few controversies, like how AIFF fielded referees from West Bengal despite Mizoram's protest. And then there was this one photo doing the rounds on social media where a Mohun Bagan flag was flying apparently on the terrace of the main referee's house in Kolkata, while another group was quick to dismiss that as a rumor started by East Bengal fans. Oh the pre-match drama was so intense! :D And of course some fans of the Mariners started saying that Lajong was ready to gift the game to Aizawl FC so as to see a team from the North East win the league rather than Mohun Bagan, but anybody watching the match would know all the players played really well, with no question of match-fixing.
What a game indeed. We celebrated till 6 in the morning, and then continued the same day again as it was a holiday. I told my friends Gary and Sano to go to work as they didn't have a holiday, but they were so excited about the win that they continued celebrating with us :) That's how happy and excited all of us were about this unbelievable fairy tale win.
It would be truly tragic if Reliance and AIFF go ahead with the merger and demote the reigning champions to second division. Forget about it being tragic, it would be freaking embarrassing as a nation if this happens. How profit-hungry are the men in suits? We Indians have been stereotyped as being shrewd and stingy when it comes to business, and demoting a reigning champion just because they don't have the required funds will prove just that.
I don't mean to name-drop, but I think we need a person like Mr. Pratap Nair.
Who is Mr. Pratap Nair?
He's the founder of a little known shipping company called FEI Cargo Ltd.
Back in 2014 when Mizoram became the second team from the North East to win India's most prestigious football tournament - Santosh Trophy, the winning squad came down to Mumbai to play an exhibition match against WIFA XI (Western India Football Association). I had written an extensive report here, feel free to click the link. What I had mentioned in that post was, Tetea Hmar told me the entire expenditure that included air tickets for all 30 members of the Mizoram squad, their accommodation and food at The Leela (5 Star hotel), hiring the Cooperage football stadium, a handsome amount of cheque to support the young boys at home etc, were all paid by Mr. Pratap Nair himself! He's big time into promoting grassroots level football development and he's the type of person our nation needs to make sure Indian football stays relevant.
Otherwise, if we're just going to have only rich clubs or clubs with rich owners (read A-list celebrities) be a part of the new league, the passion is not really going to be there. They treat football more as a showbiz rather than an actual sport. I confess I stopped watching ISL matches a long time ago, I find the entire concept very artificial but I try my best not to miss any I-League matches. History is very important when it comes to football.
Remember the heated Mohun Bagan - East Bengal derbies, or watching Goan clubs like Salgaocar, Dempo and Churchill Brothers play? Remember how excited we were when Shillong Lajong became the first club from the North East to join the I-League. We northeasterners all became hardcore Lajong fans back then :D Lajong was quickly followed by other Northeastern clubs like United Sikkim, Rangdajied United, Royal Wahingdoh and finally Aizawl FC. We were all heart-broken when clubs like JCT and Mahindra United had to shut shop.
All these clubs are all renowned names in the Indian football franchise. They have history. We grew up looking up to these great clubs, revering them, respecting them, and it was the dream of many Mizo football players to play for one of these clubs. Many did. In the current I-League, more than 50 Mizo players played for various I-League teams, making Mizoram the state with the most number of players at the I-League. And just as our own home team not only participated but won the tournament, the entire league is now about to end forever and our champs relegated? No. No freaking way. This ain't fair! Ain't fair at all.
How can the football Gods be this cruel?
I take back my opening statement. What an awful time to be living in if you are a Mizo.