On Saturday afternoon, at a choc-a-bloc Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Mualpui, fans braved the rain and cheered their hearts out for Aizawl FC, as the local side notched up a thrilling 1-0 victory against Mohun Bagan to go clear at the top of the I-League table. A point in the last match against fellow North-Eastern side Shillong Lajong will be enough for Khalid Jamil’s men to script what can be called one of the unlikeliest success stories in Indian football history.

The backdrop for the tie was perfect. With the fixture being sold out almost four days in advance, people lined up in the hilly terrains with their umbrellas to catch some glimpses of the potential title-decider. The misty conditions due to the passing clouds brought down the visibility drastically during some stages of the match, but the 22 men on the field gave their all in this fight for glory. In the dying minutes of the match, the prayers of the Reds were finally rewarded and Zotea Ralte’s header hit the back of the net to send the crowd frenzy. At the venue, it was a sight to behold.

It was a big boost for Indian football in general too, with local football becoming the hottest topic of discussion in the city and beyond. With bastions like West Bengal and Goa experiencing dwindling interest, the popularity of clubs like Kerala Blasters, Aizawl FC and Chennaiyin FC has improved the overall health of the domestic competitions.

Yet, after this fairytale journey, the Mizo outfit find themselves on the verge of getting booted out of top flight. The All Indian Football Federation (AIFF), along with its marketing partners IMG-Reliance, is hell-bent on rolling out the proposed league model as soon as possible to make the clumsy football calendar more structured. If the draft plan is implemented without any major changes, clubs like Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC will not be accommodated in the new top division. There is a significant probability that the proposed new league (often referred to as a merged entity) will kick-start in the next season and scary as it may sound, on Saturday, Aizawl FC might have already played their last top-tier game in foreseeable future.

Their incredible achievement, hence, has put the All India Football Federation in an awkward position. The Indian football hierarchy has been very vocal about some clubs’ incompetence to bring in fans to the stands. “A team which could not get 500 fans for their Federation Cup home semifinal last year should wake up and smell the coffee,” general secretary Kushal Das remarked last year taking a veiled dig at two Goan clubs, which had pulled out of the I-League.

If one assumes bringing fans to the stadium is one of the most important criteria, then Aizawl have passed with flying colours, as we have rarely seen a whole region standing behind a team with such vigour. But the equation is not that simple, as the AIFF also has a soft corner for clubs who seem to have deep coffers.

So, while a couple of Pune based clubs have struggled to bring in fans to the venues, it’s neither counted as inefficiency nor pointed out constantly by the honchos sitting in New Delhi. “The clubs which have pulled out were not investing in football. They blame other reasons but the real reason is that they don’t have bandwidth now to continue,” AIFF president Praful Patel had opined about Salgaocar and Sporitng Clube de Goa.

The former civil aviation minister is never short of digs at non-corporate clubs which are struggling with finances. “Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are classic examples who have a fan base of more than a lakh and still don’t have sponsors. I cannot say much on this but you should ask them what’s wrong not me,” Patel had said last year. However, when the corporate franchise DSK Shivajians were reeling with sudden cash crunch midway this season, he mysteriously kept mum.

This trend of using different yardsticks can also be deployed against Aizawl FC. The young outfit runs on a small budget which is less than 10% of many Indian Super League (ISL) franchises and part of that is constituted by small donations from local fans. It’s up to the men sitting at the Football House to decide now if Aizawl has the necessary “bandwidth”, but as the club showed on Saturday, what they have got is an umbilical connection with the community, a vocal support base, and a systematic youth development programme. Whether that will be enough for them to get a place in the new league is anybody’s guess.

It will be a shame if Indian football goes on to have a top-division league with its defending champions (or runners up, in case Aizawl mess it up in the last match and the Mariners win) deemed unfit to participate due to monetary reasons. For now, AIFF may try to weather the storm by sending the discussions to the cold storage for a few months hoping that the mass support behind clubs like Aizawl FC will wane away with time. In case it doesn’t, their modus operandi will be dissected under the scanner.