In many ways, Mizoram is India’s forgotten state – though brimming with potential, tragically lacking in means or direction. When you’re the seventh largest country in the world and divided into 29 states and seven Union Territories, it’s easy to exclude the north-east minnows from the conversation.
Detached from the rest of the country, clinging on only by a sliver of land that carefully treads around and beyond Bangladesh, the region is alienated from the mainland in thought and locale.
It is then more than a bolt from the blue when a small football team from the obscure state’s capital ups and wins the national league. In the north east, football isn’t just a sport, it’s the only sport, a way of life and few things matter as much. The locals boast a passion for the beautiful game that rivals that of anywhere in the world.
Imagine then the fanfare and elation last month when Aizawl FC, operating on a shoestring budget, fuelled by local talent, industry and the infectious enthusiasm of its fan base, defied the odds and became champions of India. A remarkable 2017 season saw the Mizo outfit win the I-League and it wasn’t long before they were branded India’s own Leicester City.
Everyone loves an underdog and it’s hard not to be moved by Aizawl’s extraordinary feat. You’d think a fairytale such as theirs can only be good for Indian football, but their unprecedented success has given the All India Football Federation (AIFF) a headache, one they have alleviated… for now.
The country’s football governing body last year announced plans for a new three-tier structure where the three-month (for now) long Indian Super League (ISL) would operate for seven months from November to March as the top division with the I-League serving as the second and I-League Two running as the third.
If that plan went ahead for the upcoming season, Indian football would’ve been confronted with the bizarre scenario of its national champions, who will compete in the AFC Champions League (ACL) qualifiers this year, playing in the country’s second division. It’s that blueprint with which Aizawl took issue, so much so that they even intended to protest publically to the extent of staging a hunger strike, threatening to ‘fast unto death’.
However, it’s understood that as of the past week, those plans have been put off. Instead, the two leagues are expected to run parallel next season, with the I-League champions retaining their ACL qualifier spot while the AFC are prepared to allot the 2017-18 ISL champions an AFC Cup place.
That however would mean that the AFC Cup spot usually awarded to the winners of the Federation Cup, India’s premier domestic cup, would cease to exist.
Ultimately, while all of this is the current understanding, it’s not been made official yet as told to Sport360 by I-League CEO Sunando Dhar.
“That’s one of the discussions (parallel leagues). Nothing is decided, we are waiting to hear back from the AFC.”
That scenario though appears to agree with Aizawl in the immediate future as the club’s owner Robert Royte states.
“The national league champions will qualify for the ACL playoffs. The I-League is still the big one.”
He preferred, however, not to reveal his plans should the ISL eventually reign supreme.
“At this stage, I prefer not to disclose my idea because it has become a sensitive issue. But we have been given to understand that for the next season, I-League will still be the top league.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, IMG-Reliance’s subsidiary, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), which runs the ISL, invited bids for ‘one to three’ new teams.
“Bids are invited from prospective team owners in respect of 10-cities ie, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Cuttack, Durgapur, Hyderabad, Jamshedpur, Kolkata, Ranchi, Siliguri and Thiruvananthapuram,” a press release stated.
The decision presumably opens the door for the inclusion of the I-League’s big three; Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Meanwhile, Aizawl are nowhere in the picture as theirs is not one of the 10 cities invited – excluded from the conversation once more. It’s a scenario that Royte has accepted with resignation.
“As per the present format of ISL, Aizawl, being a small city, is not one of the selected cities for an franchise. We are outside the system. The ISL does not concern us.”
But before we mourn the absence of Mizoram’s distinct flavour in what could become the top tier, remember the region does have an ISL franchise representing them and one that has gained fanatical support over a short period.
NorthEast United FC not only represent Mizoram but also seven other states from the north east, as the eight stars that headlines their crest suggests. Such is the club’s following that they boasted the second-highest attendance in the ISL last year, pulling in an average of 26,729. By contrast, Aizawl’s average attendance in their title-winning campaign was 6,943.
It’s an unfair comparison to make between the leagues but as long as they compete to be regarded as the nation’s No1 division, that’s what will happen. The country needs a singular top flight to get behind and that’s why a merger or restructuring appears imminent.
“We all wanted to have one long league and in future we are moving towards that where teams from ISL and I-League play together,” Dhar adds. “We tried to begin that from this year. Then it would be a fight between the top clubs in the same league.”
The general consensus is eventually the ISL, with the inclusion of a few teams from the I-League, will be officially recognised as the top division. However, Dhar prefers to perceive that as the two leagues working in cohesion to help construct a new football ecosystem.
“It’s not about that (ISL or I-League being top). The idea is to have two or three divisions and the top division should have the top teams. That’s what Mr. Praful Patel (AIFF President) has said. In about 4-5 years, it will be the right time.”
With the upcoming season to feature the two leagues running parallel, I-League clubs risk losing their best players to the more financially rewarding ISL, but Dhar ironically points to Aizawl’s efforts as an alternative, whose players are likely to be cherry picked.
“Aizawl FC with a next-to-nothing budget overcame teams like Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru. Ideally, that’s the model every club needs to look at. Build their own teams through the youth system.”
It’s all well and good regarding Aizawl’s achievement as a harbinger of hope, but Indian football needs much more, it requires a clear direction, structure and financial stimulus. With the country hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in October and the national team’s recent rise to 100 in the FIFA rankings, now is the time to act, to make the most of this momentum.
That might mean the likes of Aizawl and other I-League clubs simply incapable of complying with the criteria and financial demands of the ISL are destined to remain in what may become the second tier for the foreseeable future.
Admittedly, it is a bitter pill to swallow but hopefully one that can help remedy Indian football’s septic stagnation.
Such is the intrigue generated by the newly crowned I-League champions that according to Aizawl FC owner Robert Royte, there are ongoing talks about the possibility of a Bollywood film. The movie would centre around head coach Khalid Jamil to be played by veteran actor Ajay Devgan (above).
One of the most remarkable aspects of Aizawl’s triumph is they conquered the league and punched well above their weight on a miserly budget. To put it into perspective, Mohun Bagan’s Haitian forward Sony Norde rakes in wages upwards of Rs. 1.2 Cr. Aizawl’s total budget is Rs. 1.5 Cr.
The title win was also the ultimate redemption for head coach Jamil. The Kuwaiti-born former Indian international was sacked from Mumbai FC after eight seasons. As fate would have it, Mumbai were relegated as Jamil lifted the trophy he coveted for so long with his new employers
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Throughout the entire season, Aizawl scored just one goal in the opening half hour of games. In fact, 75 per cent of their goals came in the second half. They became notorious for grinding out wins and their never-say-die attitude as 33 per cent of their strikes came in the final 15 minutes.