CHENNAI: Sport! It’s not for nothing that they call it the great leveller. Every once in a while, it throws up one of those stories that warms the cockles, restores belief in the Gods and brings on a smile on the face of even the staunchest of cynics. A story that tells you that sometimes belief and an obstinate refusal to accept defeat can get you anywhere. On Sunday, on a chilly Shillong night, it threw up another one of those.
At no stage of Aizawl FC’s incredible season were they supposed to end up champions of Indian football. Not in June when they were relegated despite not being last. Not in September, when they were reinstated back with just a couple of months to prepare. Not in December, when they hired Khalid Jamil, who had just been let go by this year’s wooden-spooners Mumbai FC, because he was not good enough. And they were certainly not supposed to win it in March when they found themselves in a race with two teams, whose best players were costlier than Aizawl’s entire budget (`2.5 crore). Even the final weekend stacked odds against them, demanding a result away from home, in a game that was to be officiated by four referees from Kolkata — home of Mohun Bagan, their closest rivals.
Yet here they are. Champions! A team from a town with fewer people than Chandni Chowk on a busy day had beaten the best an entire country had thrown at them. The Leicester City story, rewritten with a heavy dose of desi masala.
In many ways, Aizawl scorer William Lalnufela’s story is the wonderful parable of Mizoram’s football revolution. He was there when Mizoram won the Santosh Trophy in 2014. He was again there when they won gold at the National Games. And now here he is, headlining in the coronation of a region that has been, for long, India’s unofficial football capital.
“Aizawl is shaking,” tweeted a fan from the city soon after the game. Shaking would be an understatement, for football is religion in Mizoram. You’ll find football the minute you land in Aizawl. You’ll find it in Bara Bazar, the commercial heart, and at the Millennium Centre, where youngsters flock. You’ll find it in Aizawl FC’s office, a nondescript deviation away from the main road where people call in asking for tickets that have been long sold out and on the hillocks surrounding Rajiv Gandhi Stadium where ticketless fans congregate to watch games.
Any team, barring three or four, winning the I-League would have been an underdog story. But that it’s Aizawl FC lends the narrative extra romanticism. Everything, they say, is purer up in the mountains.