Aizawl FC, a club representing football-crazy Mizoram in the I-League, became a success story much before their historic triumph in the 2016-’17 I-League season. Winning the Second Division League to qualify for India’s first football division was, in itself, huge for the state that had produced many players for Indian football but never had a club in the topmost tier.
It was on April 30, 2017 that Aizawl FC produced one of Indian football’s greatest triumphs; an underdog going all the way to win the title in a landscape where such stories were not commonplace.
A rollercoaster journey
Their debut season in 2015-’16 brought many good memories for the people of Aizawl but ended with the club getting relegated after finishing just a place above DSK Shivajians who were immune from relegation for being a corporate entry.
After impressing in the Federation Cup campaign that followed where they reached the final having knocked out champions Bengaluru FC over two legs at the quarter-final stage, Aizawl were thrown a lifeline after three Goan clubs – Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa – pulled out from the I-League.
Back in India’s top division, Aizawl FC, who had a good pre-season in the build-up to the 2016-’17 season, hired Khalid Jamil as their new coach. Jamil had been sacked by Mumbai FC after six seasons at the club despite helping the club avoid relegation in each of those campaigns. Managing the side with a shoestring budget, Jamil had expertly guided Mumbai FC through troubled times, but fell victim to his own overachievement.
At Aizawl, Jamil had the same-old task: save the club from relegation. But deep inside he had a big point to prove. Often at the receiving end of fellow coaches for playing an unpleasant style of football, Jamil must have yearned to shatter his image of a negative coach.
He had several qualities as a coach that often got neglected due to the football his teams played, one of it being the ability to groom and get the best out of the young players.
His influence on his players was evident from the fact that his former players Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta, crowd favourites at the Mumbai club, went from almost signing a contract extension with Mumbai to signing for far-away Aizawl within a space of 24 hours.
Such was their faith in their coach Jamil, that they left their position of comfort at Mumbai FC to the unknown challenge at Aizawl FC.
The coach, his players, their resilience and hard work combined with a mentality to fight till the very turned, Aizawl into a sturdy unit. Fueled by the optimism of last season’s Federation Cup run and passionate set of supporters at home, Aizawl were able to punch much above their weight.
From the archive: Fans speak about Aizawl FC’s stunning title victory
And that punch proved to be too much even for the likes of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the historic powerhouses of Indian football and Bengaluru FC, then defending champions.
In the very first game, Aizawl showed they were going to be a hard nut to crack. Facing the formidable East Bengal in Kolkata, Jamil’s men rescued a point right at the death to open their account for the season. In their next game, their first at home, they netted another late goal, this time to claim all three points against Minerva Punjab, the league debutants.
The late goals then become a theme of their season as their players never felt they were beaten. Another home victory over Shillong Lajong followed in the North-Eastern derby.
The home form was a big difference-maker for Aizawl who won eight and drew just one in their nine games in the Mizoram capital. The wins were not emphatic with six of those being by a one-goal margin. It wasn’t surprising as man-to-man Aizawl FC were never superior to their rivals, but mentally they outlasted most.
Aizawl never lost back-to-back games that season, always bouncing back from setbacks. As the season approached its end and the dream felt a lot closer to reality, there were a few nerves as Jamil’s men dropped points in consecutive games for the first time, drawing at Minerva Punjab and losing to Bengaluru FC.
However, in a virtual title-decider against Mohun Bagan with both teams locked on the same number of points going into the penultimate round of the season, Aizawl eked out a 1-0 win with Zohmingliana Ralte netting the winner in the 83rd minute.
Aizawl headed into the final round of matches just needing a draw at Shillong Lajong, another tough place for a visiting team. The dream appeared to be slipping when Lajong took the lead and preserved it till half time, but Aizawl had developed a knack of getting back into matches; and equalised through Lalnunfela in the 68th minute.
That, as it turned out, was enough.
From the archive: On an incredible final day, Aizawl FC get their happy ending
Jamil’s men who had conceded just 14 goals all season held on to script Indian football’s most remarkable underdog story. Aizawl FC became the first club from India’s north-east region to win the I-League.
It wasn’t a triumph of style, swagger, attacking football and lots of goals, In fact, with 24 goals, Aizawl were the lowest scorers in the league’s top six. It was a victory of their fighting spirit, discipline and belief in their abilities; qualities often underrated in football and life.
It was vindication for Jamil too, a validation for his footballing philosophy. His stock as a coach grew in Indian football, not just for events in Aizawl but also due to how things unfolded at the club that got rid of him. Mumbai FC were relegated from the I-League for the first time in their history, also in the only season without Jamil at the helm.
Aizawl’s triumph gave hope for smaller clubs in Indian football. In the two years that followed, Minerva Punjab and Chennai City FC, newcomers to Indian football won the I-League titles. Five new clubs entered the I-League in the next three seasons, making it a highly competitive league.
Aizawl’s win was breath of fresh air to the I-League. Eventually, it was not enough to save its top-flight status, but it delayed the inevitable for few years and made All India Football Federation think before devaluing its own product.