Landing at Lengpui, the airport which connects Aizawl to the rest of India, is a fascinating experience. When the flight you are in begins its final descent, concrete jungles, barren water bodies and a half-hearted attempt to maintain an area reserved for flora and fauna are the first things that flash by. That’s not the case here. If the mist is kind, all the passenger sees is an impressive cavalcade of mountains, each greener than the one which just passed by. Even if the physical traits are hardly a surprise, the numbers make for jaw-dropping reading.
According to the India State of Forest Report (2015), published by the Forest Survey of India (an official arm of the Ministry of Environment & Forests), 88.94% of Mizoram’s total geographical area (21,081 sqkm) are classified as ‘under forest cover’.
Then, there is the actual process of exiting the airport, some 35km from the city centre. At Lengpui, most Indians are obliged to fill a document — an Inner Line Permit — which gives the applicant permission to enter Mizoram. One can walk on without it and the police, who double up as tourist guides, generally don’t bother. But if you walk up to them and ask for directions, the first thing they tell you is to fill the ILP. Innocent expressions — a sizeable few are not even aware of the rule — are usually met with stoic silence.
“Protected area, fill and sign,” is the only explanation you are going to get. Apparently, the original version of the rule has been in existence since the 19th century. Filling it is not a hassle — it hardly takes five minutes and the police do not ask for Aadhaar —but it can leave the tourist a bit shaken. Those feelings, however, quickly evaporate thanks to cab drivers outside the airport. They even recognise why you have come. “Oh, you are a journalist,” the cab driver says. “Football?” When the answer is in the affirmative, pat comes the response. “You are late. Everyone came and went in April. You should have come then. The city was celebrating.”
October 6, 2016, was going to be a good day for the Mizoram Football Association (MFA) and the Meghalaya Premier League (MPL), a little-known league that played its part in one of the biggest footballing revolutions seen in India. LV Lalthantluanga, popularly known as Tato, general manager of Zonet, a local cable TV network, had taken a big gamble in 2012 on investing money in Mizoram’s football passion. `25 lakh per year for five years. The venture was a loss-making one but MPL, purely as a product, had become one of India’s biggest footballing commodities. So on October 6, the stakeholders were back with a new contract. `30 lakh a year for the next block of five years.
“People in Mizoram called me crazy when the first contract was signed,” Tato says. “But I knew it was working. When we won Santosh Trophy in 2014, each and every player from the state was playing or had played in the league. It gave upcoming as well as established players a platform to train and play. Even though we didn’t break even, extending the contract for another five years felt like the right thing.” The cascading effect of the success of MPL can be seen without the help of google. “Players, even part-time ones, are more motivated than ever. If they can use the MPL as a platform before making it to the ISL, so can we, became the mantra.”Even if one has to take that quote with a few spoons of salt because of Tato’s association with MPL, the league has led to Mizoram’s current status as an upstart in the sport. “It was always a big sport for the people here,” Lalnghinglova Hmar, secretary of the association, says. “The popularity, though, has grown in the last 3-4 years. The advent of MPL, the Santosh Trophy win, the men’s team winning the National Games, a vast number of sub-junior and junior teams punching above their weight. Aizawl’s win only amped up that noise further.”
Unlike most Northeastern states, Mizoram’s footballing graph is peculiar. The 1980s were boom time but it nosedived in the 90s. Hmar has an interesting explanation. “The advent of cable TV and maybe some mismanagement by MFA meant the sport had a bit of downturn. We have somehow revived it in the last six years.” Cable TV played its part in the revival process too. “It was cable TV that killed the game, it was cable TV that brought back the game.”This isn’t a case of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. Too many things had to fall in place in the intervening years. But one can make a genuine assumption that without the MPL, the development of football in Mizoram would have taken a few more years.
The word small frequently pops up into conversations regarding Mizoram, the fifth smallest state in India. The sixth-youngest state by date of formation (Goa, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Telangana being the newer ones) doesn’t have the resources to compete with most other states. Hmar, whose primary aim is to sustain rather than build, touches upon this point. “We are small in comparison. Take this example. If we get 10 Salt Lake Stadia in Mizoram, we can fit the entire population inside those 10 places. That’s how small we are.” But there are plans to try and build a credible supply chain as well start a new women’s league. “We will be starting a women’s league by November as well as starting an Under-12 league competition for boys. So the aim is to sustain what we have and build slowly.”
It may have been nearly five months since Aizawl FC’s miracle men created history but the people of the city are not going to forget it any time soon. During an MPL match on the 15th of the month, a video went viral on Twitter and it has to be seen to be believed. Fans formed an orderly queue to shake hands with the new coach and assistant coach (Paulo Menezes and Martin Andres) after their pulsating 2-2 draw with Chanmari FC. At a time when instant gratification is in vogue, it was a barely believable act to see hundreds of fans lining up to shake hands with two blokes who weren’t even around when the club finished in first place. It really is the “People’s FC,” as Robert Royte, owner of the club, says.
One of the richest men in the state, Royte, who was the United Democratic Front (UDF)’s nominee for the only Lok Sabha seat in 2014, feels he is a blessed man. Not even in his wildest dreams did he expect the club to triumph so soon. “... (the title) was beyond our imagination.” The Cinderella story behind the title is every bit as inspiring as one might expect (Bollywood, predictably, are already on the scene).
The club became defunct in the last years of the 20th century. After re-establishing it in 2011, Royte, who was the president then, found that a few things were amiss. “It was being run like an NGO. So we decided to look for somebody to buy it. When no investor came forward I decided to take over.” The reason behind his decision was simple – ego, even if he doesn’t say so explicitly. “The club was defunct once before and I didn’t want another case of that happening under my presidency. So I decided to buy it.”
People in Aizawl came out in droves once it emerged that AIFF may not make them part of the merged league (yet to take place). Hunger-strikes formed part of the equation as people in the state resorted to peaceful protests. Royte, who has answers lined up for every query, takes his time in answering this. What football means to the people of Mizoram? “The uniting icon. More so now because it has become an industry. It was a celebration then. It’s become a source of employment now.”That response comes with a caveat because you expect the owner of the most popular NE club to say something that borders on hyperbole. However, his words contain a grain of truth. During an MPL match a few hours later, a cottage industry comes alive. Ticket sellers outside, vendors selling chips and a small crowd watching two basement dwellers in driving rain at 8.30 pm. The pitch resembles a lake but the players carry on.
Conditions are clearly unsafe and the players are literally running on water. A slip here or there might result in a couple of broken bones. A spectator bats away these concerns. “If something happens to the players then it’s obviously bad but there is zero chance of the game getting cancelled. There is a live telecast, three to four vendors depend on sales from this match to make money. All of us have got tickets for the match when the bedtime is 7.30 pm. Some of us are going to push it to 9.30 pm. It will continue.”
It did continue.
Ground Zero to Title High
Here’s a quick look at Aizawl FC’s tough times which led to them being defunct for over a decade before change in fortunes...
Late 20th century: Aizawl FC, founded in 1984, had been defunct for close
to 15 years.
2011: The board finally met and decided to rebuild the brand again. Winning the I-League was one of the stated objectives.
2012: After failing to find investors, Robert Royte decides to take over the club. It coincides with AIFF granting them pro status.
2016: After four years in the I-League 2nd Divison, club wins promotion. A year later, it goes on to win the top-tier league.
What is Mizoram Premier League
An eight-team league run by the Mizoram Football Association since 2012.
Why is it special
It is broadcast live to nearly five lakh houses across Mizoram. Has also provided employment to the youth over the last few years.
A new women’s league will begin from November. MFA wants to continue the good work and hopes to sustain the tournaments it has they havat this moment.