If the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had a category for tactlessness in its post-season awards, it wouldn’t have to look past its own general secretary, Kushal Das. Even before the champagne corks had hit the floor after Aizawl FC, relegation candidates in 2015-16, pulled off a most remarkable, almost outrageous feat in Indian football history by winning the 2016-17 I-League, Das said something along the lines of “Congratulations, you won the league. But you’re going to be relegated anyway.” 

At the time – early May 2017 – the AIFF had been scratching its head about the proposed overhaul of the Indian league structure and contractual restrictions meant including Aizawl in the restructured top division was difficult. The club had neither the resources nor the history. By winning the league, they had only caused AIFF a headache – this was a side that had been relegated the previous season and had had to be reinstated. They weren’t supposed to win anything. 

When Das said what he did – “They can still play in the second division and continue to grow their club there. We will show even the second division matches live on television. Aizawl need not lose heart even if they are not part of the league” – there were scoffs. But the fans didn’t let that dampen the festivities. Half the city turned up at Lengpui Airport to greet the team on their return, all chanting, “Ole Aizawl FC”. The singing carried on throughout the 20-mile journey to the city centre, where an open-top bus parade of the trophy proceeded through Aizawl’s hilly roads, on dangerously steep inclines and hair-pin bends. 

The small, seemingly ancient buildings – all precariously placed – along the narrow, winding roads had people popping out of the windows, screaming themselves hoarse, and many of the cars, including the Maruti 800 taxis rarely seen in mainland cities, had “Aizawl – The People’s Club” plastered on their rear windows. The team disembarked at the venerated Lammual Stadium, sang and danced more, and lapped it all up. The festivities carried on till late in the evening, when the lights at the venue were switched off and the crowd lit up the night with their mobile phone torches. It was some sight.

There was, however, no hangover. Aizawl decided to hit back and a strongly worded statement was released, revealing they had “submitted a formal claim to AIFF to continue in the top league” and threatened everything from worldwide protests to a fast-unto-death. 

The AIFF found itself in a fix. It needed corporate money to take Indian football forward, but that meant compromising on the existing structure, the teams with tradition and history. Funds are sorely needed in Indian football, but shouldn’t come at the cost of teams with lesser resources, as it was in this case. Just how corporate did the AIFF want to get?

As far as Aizawl were concerned, they had earned their place in the top division, whatever form it took. The situation wasn’t something new. In their first year in the I-League in 2015-16, they were relegated despite finishing above the relegation zone, as the AIFF had granted immunity to the team that finished below them as part of its corporate investment scheme. Aizawl had been defunct once, for 13 years, and were very nearly defunct again within a year of their revival. 

They are based in the state of Mizoram, with its hilly but harsh topography. The ups and downs were familiar. 

Mizoram’s location – sandwiched between Myanmar and Bangladesh – means it is geographically remote from the rest of India. Mainstream trends, therefore, took a while to reach Aizawl, its capital city, and not all trends made a mark. That could explain why cricket never caught on in these parts: the north-east is known for its deep-rooted passion for football, while most of the country can’t see past bats and balls.   

The birth of Aizawl FC was rooted in this passion. The club was formed in 1984 by Benjamin Khiangte, who hoped to replicate the European football model in Mizoram, but despite his best efforts – including loaning out cars to players in the hope of convincing them to join Aizawl and ward off other suitors – the club was officially wound up in 1998. In 2011, a band of friends got together and decided to revive Aizawl. Robert Royte, one among that group, is now the owner of the club and perhaps its most important figure. 

Royte, a lecturer-turned-businessman, is a hugely respected figure in Aizawl – he proudly reveals he is the current holder of the ‘Mizo of the Year’ award – and is a hard man to get hold of. But one has the best chance of finding him at the Aizawl office, situated in an unassuming gully off Dwarpui Road. He threw light on the hiccups faced during the revival. “We couldn’t really implement the professionalism we wanted because it was like an NGO,” he says. “In fact, in 2012, it came to a stage where the club could not continue, even after its revival. The executive committee decided to change the ownership model, because as a community-based project it was difficult to sustain.”

The committee handed over the club’s reins to Royte, who moved the team under his company – North East Consultancy Services (NECS) – banner. He could now invest freely in the team – “I didn’t want the club to be defunct again. Apart from the disappointment, it would also spoil my name” – and the results were soon evident. 

By the 2014-15 season, Aizawl had moulded a team good enough to finish top of the I-League second division. The following year they played a brand of football that was mesmerising, even if lacking the temperament necessary to win top-flight matches. They finished eighth in the nine-team I-League, but were relegated due to AIFF’s peculiar rules. The Aizawl fans protested and eventually, after two other teams withdrew from the I-League citing unhappiness with the governing body’s plans, AIFF reinstated Aizawl. 

Little did they know that the move would not just change the course of the season to follow, it would put a whole city on the map.

Aizawl’s joy at being reinstated was tempered by the departure of the team captain, David Lalrinmuana, to East Bengal, historically one of the biggest sides in Indian football. But as always, Aizawl remained unperturbed in the face of adversity and went about righting the wrongs of the previous campaign. Their first coup was in securing the services of Khalid Jamil as head coach. Few know Indian football better than Jamil – he had spent a decade as a player on the circuit and had coached Mumbai FC for seven years – and he went about addressing Aizawl’s primary flaw from the previous season: the lack of experience. 

Jamil recruited smartly, bringing in Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rana from his former club Mumbai, the Syria international Mahmoud Al Amna, who lent experience as well as presence in the middle, along with local boy Zohmingliana 'Zotea' Ralte and a few others. Alfred Jaryan, top scorer the previous season, was made captain. 

The season started off well enough, with a 1-1 draw away at East Bengal that was followed by a series of wins that kept them around the top of the table. But it wasn’t until after the midway point of the season that Aizawl were spoken of as potential title-winners. That brought with it pressure, but Aizawl didn’t blink. They had no right to do what they were doing, they were in unchartered territory, but they didn’t let that faze them. 

With two matches left, the hype reached fever pitch. A home game against Mohun Bagan, one of the powerhouses in India1, awaited them on the penultimate weekend. The winner would be the master of their own fate. It was a tense affair, and it remained goalless until the 83rd minute when Zotea powered in a header from a corner. Aizawl’s defence wasn’t breached in the little time that remained, meaning they needed just a point from their final game to seal the title. However, they would have to do so without their captain Jaryan and the midfielder Mehta, both suspended for picking up their fourth yellows of the season. 

Aizawl’s final clash was against neighbours Shillong Lajong, who were for long the flag-bearers of north-east football. Ironically, Lajong now posed the final hurdle for what would be the region’s biggest achievement in the sport. The derby was another fiercely contested affair, with Lajong in no mood to be neighbourly. They opened the scoring in the ninth minute, but when news filtered through that Mohun Bagan, playing simultaneously in Kolkata, had taken the lead against Chennai City, you could have cut the tension with a knife. 

In the second half, following a pep-talk from Jamil – “You will not get another 45 minutes like this” – Aizawl attacked, again and again. But Lajong’s goalkeeper, Vishal Kaith, was having a day to remember, pulling off save after save. Aizawl somehow did find the back of the net, but alas, the flag had gone up. It was torture. Eventually, thankfully, the 21-year-old substitute William Lalnunfela broke Lajong’s resistance in the 67th minute. There was pandemonium.   

Relief gave way to pressure as the final minutes approached. The composure that had served Aizawl so well throughout the campaign deserted them. Dipanda Dicka, scorer of Lajong’s opener and the league’s top scorer, had two sitters in stoppage time. Open goal, plenty of time and only the keeper to beat – Dicka missed both times. Somehow, Aizawl survived. And when the final whistle blew, Aizawl – players, fans, management, owner and, indeed, the six hills that constitute the city – was hit with unbridled ecstasy. 

Given Aizawl’s achievement in bringing to fruition the dream of a whole state, it might seem incredible to suggest they aren’t even the best-supported side in their city. The partisanships in Aizawl are based on the different localities within the city. In fact, of the numerous conversations I struck up with strangers on Aizawl streets, many proudly spoke of Aizawl’s achievement, but maintained that their true loyalties lay with their locality. Their backing of Aizawl was only in keeping with the larger scheme of things. 

It is why the Mizoram Premier League (MPL), which started in 2012 and pits the localities against each other, is considered India’s most successful association-run league. It’s not directly linked to Aizawl’s revival but the team’s fortunes in the I-League were bettered by a being part of a professionally run league back home. In Mizoram, there are many makeshift teams playing mini-tournaments across countless villages. The Mizoram Football Association (MFA) put in place a proper pyramidal structure to these tournaments, all leading up to the eight-team MPL.  

It’s the brainchild of Lalnghinglova Hmar, aka Tetea, the secretary of the MFA. He was elected to the post – after being convinced to stand by his colleagues – in 2011 and he has been instrumental in professionalising the sport in the state. The structure allowed Mizoram’s best players to flourish. Football was no longer something they indulged in to satiate their passion – it was now a viable source of income. 

“At the time, there were a few players from Mizoram playing in the I-League and even at the national level, in the junior teams. But I realised most of these players trained outside the state,” Tetea said. “If these Mizo players could reach such heights, why not the players back home? They were just as capable, but didn’t have the platform to show that. That drove me to start the MPL.”

Tetea also was insistent on nurturing good coaches and referees, and within just two years of the MPL, it all bore fruit: Mizoram won its maiden Santosh Trophy, the prestigious AIFF-organised inter-state tournament. The next year, Mizoram claimed gold for football in the National Games. 

The MPL is credited with raising the number of Mizo players in professional football. In 2002, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, fondly known as ‘Mama’, became the first player from Mizoram to play professionally when he was recruited by East Bengal. Shylo is revered in Mizoram for being a pioneer, but since the MPL, the statistics tell its own story: a study conducted by the MFA revealed that now 20% of all professional footballers in India were from Mizoram.  

In the five MPL seasons that have gone by Aizawl have won it only once, although their MPL teams vastly differ in personnel from their I-League XIs. “During the MPL, we’re all fighting locally,” says Royte. “But once it’s over, all the good MPL players are keen to join Aizawl FC for the I-League. It is kind of like a trial for selection to Aizawl FC.” 

Aizawl may be owned by Royte and reap dividends from NECS’s investment, but at ground level, it’s still a community-propelled movement. 

“I remember once going to the Taj Mahal with a friend of mine, when I was studying in Delhi. They have two entry fees there – one for Indians and another for foreigners,” said Rosie. “We weren’t allowed entry through the Indian queue because the security guard thought we were foreigners! We showed him our college IDs, but he said he needed government identification, which we weren’t carrying at the time. So we just stood there and loudly sang India’s national anthem. The guard didn’t know what to do. Everyone there was laughing.”

Rosie is gleeful when narrating the story, but it is one of the more severe social problems in the country: the struggle of the people from the north-east for representation in mainstream India. India being one of the most diverse countries in the world, from culture to ethnicity, language to social practices, is a co-habitation of people with vastly different beliefs and practices – when it works, it’s beautiful. But it doesn’t always. The north-east comprises eight states, each with people from vastly different ethnic groups, all differing in social and cultural practices. 

Unfortunately, like Rosie, people from the region almost always have less-than-pleasant experiences in the mainland, some that cross over to racism and violence. Significant ignorance on part of the perpetrators is at the heart of the issue, which is what hurts the north-east people the most – “we are Indians too,” they say. 

Aizawl’s win is seen as a significant step, however minor, towards changing these perceptions, to sensitise the larger public about the north-east. “That [discrimination] is a particularly bad problem in northern India,” said Andrew Lalremruata, the media officer at Mizoram’s Information and Public Relations office. “It’s becoming very important for us to make peace with the mainland people. But football is giving us recognition. Hopefully, Aizawl will prompt some change. Football lovers don’t differentiate in terms of race, religion, there are no barriers.”

Royte goes a step further, expressing his conviction that Aizawl’s triumph could, to some extent, bridge the gap between the mainland and the north-east. “This part of the country is isolated in terms of socio-economics and politics. There have been a number of independent movements, a lot of which persist even now in some states,” he explains. “With Aizawl becoming more popular and with more interactions with mainstream India, it would be fair to say that Aizawl has mainstreamed the north-east a little. 

“The feeling of belonging to India is growing among the people here. Earlier, not only Mizos but a good number of other tribes believed they weren’t part of India. But when Aizawl play teams from the mainland, people see the interactions between players, the togetherness between fans, it makes a lot of difference. I think it is pivotal in national integration. Football can be very important in bringing everyone together – socially, politically, culturally. It’s capable of that.”

Football is also being used to fight other social evils. Drug addiction was a particularly big issue in the region in the 1990s and though it is not as severe now, the problem is still urgent. Football is being used as the carrot to distract, and eventually distance, the victims from the problem. “The parents of the kids coming to our academies, they know we focus on fighting social evils like drug and alcohol abuse,” he says. “It’s a big problem in Mizoram, but now it’s improving because of sport – it is the best medicine for all this. Any student who enrols in Aizawl’s academy is not supposed to smoke and chew paan [betel leaf with tobacco]. It’s what will hold them in good stead for their lifetime, not just their playing careers. We want them habituated with good deeds and high moral standards.” 

Education, again with football as the incentive, is another step towards wholesome improvement. “Through our six academies in Mizoram, we’re associated with schools. Education is one of my priorities – education and moral upbringing. Football is the route to give that to the kids. Those who are educated are always good in the field as well, they have the intellect.” 

During a local tournament at the Lammual Stadium, there was a little boy, no more than seven, standing alongside the coaches on the touchline, mimicking their gestures. He wasn’t being mischievous, rather he was aspiring to be a coach himself. He was there again the next day, running around as the players practised and the day after as well. It turned out he was Lalchanchua, the son of a local butcher. He has cerebral palsy and his parents were, apparently, close to abandoning him. But the community got together and helped him out in whatever way they could. Jamil and the rest of the Aizawl team considered him their lucky mascot. 

It’s a couple of months since the I-League was won, the celebrations have died down and Aizawl has returned to routine. Thanks to their I-League win, Aizawl will qualify for the prestigious AFC Champions League, if they negotiate the play-off. The club doesn’t intend to rest on its laurels either, they want to go deep in Asia.  

Unfortunately, a familiar pattern repeats itself, the high of winning the I-League followed by the blow of losing their coach. Jamil had such an impressive season that he received plenty of offers, including one he couldn’t refuse from East Bengal. Furthermore, Aizawl have been unable to strengthen the side, players unwilling to put pen to paper with the club’s future so uncertain. Royte is exasperated. 

For their part, the AIFF has decided to postpone merging India’s top two leagues – the I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) – meaning Aizawl will have the chance to defend their title, unless something else changes before the start of the season. Given AIFF’s track record, that isn’t unlikely. 

The AIFF’s proposed restructuring has generated plenty of excitement though – there is real hope that having all the big teams from both leagues in a revamped super league, with second and third divisions, would help Indian football replicate the European model. The idea is to have the best of both worlds in one place – the ISL has corporate power and consistently attracts the masses, but is considered a gimmick; the I-League, while it has the history and a passionate fan-base, is nearly always running on empty. 

Tetea, the first Mizo to be part of the AIFF executive committee, says all this could have been avoided a few years back. “Football in India is going in the right direction but having said that, I’m not a big fan of ISL. I’m very much against the idea of it,” he says. “If these people wanted to invest in Indian football, then why did they not improve the existing structure? Why not make the I-League more professional, bring more teams?”

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The national team has been shooting up the rankings, breaking into the top 100. Aizawl’s feat has attracted attention from all over the worl, and interest in the sport is at an all-time high. The AIFF has a momentous decision to make, one that could shape Indian football for the next few decades. In Aizawl’s story, it has the ideal path forward: attract corporate investment but don’t let it dominate, build through grassroots, promote professionalism, give fans their due. In short, wholesome development. 

If they can do that, it will be their biggest tribute to Aizawl.

With life offering almost unlimited potential for let-down, hoping that unrelated, transient third parties might embody some quasi-mythical oneness seems a hope too far. If we’re going to maintain our enthusiasm, it might be time to let our identity anxieties go.