In their long quest for recognition and relevance, the people of Mizoram seem to have finally found a medium of expression and assertion—football. While very little is still known about the state in much of mainland India, football has helped the Mizo community to claim its space in the media and minds of people. Years of sincere efforts by the players and the administration have finally borne fruit and recent achievements have fuelled the youth of the state with hope and self-worth. Football is a not just the way of life for the Mizos but also an important aspect of their identity.
It may be fair to say that Mizoram is and will always be remembered as a football-loving state and society. But much has transpired to transform this undying passion into substantial results and glory. Less than 15 years ago, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, fondly called ‘Mama’ by the Mizos, was the lone Mizo footballer playing professionally in the I-League (the top tier of Indian football). Fast forward to the present and Mizoram is now the highest contributor of footballers to the top football leagues in the country (58 in I-League 2016/17); for a meagre population of less than 1.7 million, surpassing the mighty West Bengal and Punjab is no mean feat.
It was in the year 2003 that Mizoram hosted the national Sub-Junior Football Championship and emerged victorious in the muddy pitch of Lammual. The state team won the subsequent 2004 and 2005 editions. The Mizos haven’t looked back ever since. Here are some of the key moments in the historic rise in stature of Mizoram in the Indian football scene.
Birth of Mizoram Premier League—October 24, 2012
There was a time when Mizoram teams were performing consistently at the sub-junior and junior national football tournaments but lacked the cutting edge when it came to the senior level. Though few Mizo footballers found their way to the elite clubs in the country, Mizoram was still lacking quality at the local level. To fill this gap, a local league was needed. Lalnghinglova Hmar alias Tetea, a well-known sports journalist and the Honorary Secretary of Mizoram Football Association (MFA) turned out to be the pivotal figure in this regard. He was instrumental in initiating the first semi-professional football league to take place in the state.
The MFA in collaboration with Aizawl-based Zonet Cable TV Private Limited laid the blueprint for the league in the state in 2011. It came to be popularly known as the Mizoram Premier League (MPL). Zonet and MFA agreed to a five-year contract worth 25 lakhs per year. The league was officially launched in 2012 and the first match was played on October 24, 2012. The partnership between Zonet and MFA is a fine example of localised micro-entrepreneurship and is considered to be among the best commercial deals in the country, taking into account the struggling economy of Mizoram.
In business terms, Zonet’s decision of funding MPL has not yet resulted in profit, but in the footballing sense, it has worked wonders. Before the start of MPL, the Mizoram football team had never reached the final of the Santosh trophy—the country’s elite inter-state football championship. Two years post the birth of the MPL, Mizoram became the champions of India defeating Railways 3-1 in the final in 2014. The entire squad consisted of players from the MPL clubs.
The league has already witnessed three clubs being crowned champions. So far, 12 clubs have participated in the MPL: Aizawl FC, Bethlehem Vengthlang FC, Chanmari FC, Chanmari West FC, Chhinga Veng FC, Dinthar FC, FC Kulikawn, Luangmual FC, Lunglei FC, Mizoram Police FC, RS Annexe and Reitlang FC (rebranded themselves as Zo United). All the clubs, barring Aizawl FC and Mizoram Police FC are funded locally—almost all families in their respective localities contribute to financing the club. Dinthar FC entered the history book by becoming the first MPL champion in 2012. Chanmari FC, based out of the posh locality of Chanmari in the centre of Aizawl, was crowned champions for the first time in 2013 and again in 2016. Aizawl FC has been crowned champions twice—2014 and 2015.
The clubs are usually given a match fee of Rs. 3000 per match for a win, Rs. 2000 if they lose and Rs. 2000 each in case of a draw. They are also awarded a prize money based on their ranking in the points table at the end of every season. The Board also pays close attention to individual talent and hands out individual awards at the end of every season.
Through the remarkable redistribution of minimum resources, the Mizoram Premier League has actually paved the way for local footballers to earn decent livelihood opportunities while ensuring the sustenance of the game. It has helped translate the undying passion and love for the game to something that can enable practical benefits and growth. At the start of the league, the mission was to professionalise local football, develop a local market, create channels for youth development and keep localised football alive. MPL has achieved all of that and has been a boon for Mizoram football.
Winning the Santosh Trophy and becoming the National Football Champions—March 9, 2014
The Santosh Trophy is an elite inter-state football championship that started in 1941 and is named after the former president of the Indian Football Association, Sir Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhury of Santosh after he donated the trophy. When Mizoram attained statehood in the year 1987, the Santosh Trophy had already been played for more than 40 years. Till 2012, players from Mizoram largely struggled to yield results in the tournament and the Mizoram team never reached past the quarter-finals. The laying of artificial turf at Lammual in 2012 and the subsequent initiation of the MPL turned out to be a morale boost, and the players began to assert themselves better at the national stage from then on.
In the year 2013, Mizoram played host to the North-East Zone qualifying round of the Santosh Trophy and was grouped alongside Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Victories against Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh were not a bother as Mizoram scored 3 and 5 goals respectively. They then had to face the ‘powerhouse’ of Indian football— Manipur—in a game where the team had no choice but to win. The match took place at Lammual and a huge crowd gathered to witness the match. After 80 goalless minutes, R. Laldanmawia scored the first goal of the match, sending the fans at Lammual into a chorus of delirium. Mizoram captain Zico Zoremsanga added another in the additional time, ensuring their qualification to the next round.
But this was just the stepping stone, as Mizoram team had to travel to Siliguri in West Bengal to play the final rounds. They were grouped with Kerala, Services, Maharashtra (who were all previous champions) and Uttarakhand. As the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had banned the participation of players from the I-League, the quality of the players at the local level was put on show. The Mizoram team shocked all opponents with convincing victories, leading to a semi-final face off with Tamil Nadu.
Mizoram had faced Tamil Nadu twice in the Santosh Trophy in previous years, losing on both occasions. In their third match against each other, both teams scored a goal each during the 90 minute match time. However, in the extra time, Mizoram scored two more goals and booked their place in the final. With each step forward, history was being scripted by the Mizoram football team. Before the final match, Mizoram coach H. Vanlalthlanga rightly said, ‘No one ever remembers the runner-up.’ The words needed no repetition as the team thumped 3 goals past the Railways goalkeeper and were crowned champions of India.
This victory was a crowning moment for players and fans alike. It boosted the morale of the players and gave them confidence. The squad that included the likes of Zico Zoremsanga (captain) and F. Lalrinpuia became heroes overnight. Acknowledging the role of MPL behind the success, Lalnghinglova Hmar said, 'We at the MFA knew that unless we win in a senior-level tournament, we would never be recognised as a football powerhouse. That is why, for many years now, our topmost priority has been the Santosh Trophy. That’s when MPL came and everything changed.'
Aizawl FC becomes the Hero I-League champions for the 2016–17 season—April 30, 2017
In the late 1980s, Aizawl FC was a renowned club at the local level but the name never crossed the borders of Mizoram and eventually ceased to function. Then came a local football-crazy businessman called Robert Romawia Royte. In 2011, under the stewardship of Royte, Aizawl FC once again got its wings back, with a dream to fly over the borders of the Northeast region.
Aizawl FC had to first prove themselves in the local MPL before attempting to challenge at the national stage. Their maiden season in the league saw them winning only six out of the total 14 matches played. They finished the season 6th in the table with 20 points. The second season was not much different; Aizawl FC ranked 5th in the table with fewer points (15) than the first season. They, however, won back to back league titles in 2014 and 2015. They went on to defy all odds to also win the second division I-League in 2015 with 34 points— the biggest margin ever recorded in the country’s second-tier league. Under the tutelage of K. Malsawmkima, Aizawl FC scored a staggering 45 goals in 14 matches and conceded only 20.
Then came the I-League, which turned out to be a mountain too big for the inexperienced Aizawl FC to conquer. At the end of their first season in the top tier, Aizawl FC could only manage 4 wins out of the 16 league matches played; they finished 8th out of the nine teams and faced relegation. However, Aizawl FC got another chance to redeem themselves as they were reinstated after their relegation.
Kuwait-born Indian coach Khalid Jamil was welcomed by the highlanders as the coach of the season. The former India international brought along three players—Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta and goalkeeper Albino Giovanni Gomes. Mahmoud Al-Amna, the former Syrian international, filled up the foreigner slot from the Asian region. Nigerian defender Eze Kingsley and Ivorian striker Kamo Stephane Bayi were also roped in. The club proved a handful to most teams at the I-league with a strong showing, especially at home matches; they managed to secure 25 points from a possible 27 in home games. It so happened that Aizawl FC needed a victory in their penultimate league game against the Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan to keep their hope of clinching the title alive. That was ensured by Zohmingliana Ralte’s 82nd-minute header from an Al-Amna corner resulting in infinite joy among the thousands of supporters. The team now needed only a draw against fellow North-East club Shillong Lajong to clinch the title, while on the other side, Mohun Bagan needed to win against I-League newcomer Chennai City FC.
The night of April 30, 2017, was to be a night of drama and euphoria. Lajong’s star striker Dipanda Dicka scored the opening goal of the match within the first ten minutes and it seemed that Mizoram had no answer in the first half. William Lalnunfela replaced defensive midfielder V. Laltanpuia in the second half and it was to be a crucial substitution as the lad from Kolasib District scored Aizawl’s equalizer in the 68th minute to help the club draw the match. It was a goal that millions of Indian football fans were eagerly waiting for. As the final whistle was blown, the fairy tale was complete as Aizawl FC were crowned the new champions of India. The victory flooded the headlines, a first when a story from Mizoram had captured such widespread attention. The victory was so historic that the Chief Minister of the State declared a half-day state holiday the next day to ring in the celebrations.
Jeje Lalpekhlua, Indian Footballer of the Year (2016)—June 8, 2017
While team victories can bring a lot of inspiration to the growth of a sport, there is the need for an individual figure who can be the flag-bearer of the community. Jeje Lalpekhlua has done exactly that and is currently the best-known footballer in the country from Mizoram. The young stocky lad first gained prominence in an Under-16 Inter-District tournament organised by the Mizoram Football Association in Serchhip District. Stephen Constantine’s favoured striker played right back at that time but ended the tournament as the top scorer. Hailing from Hnahthial, a small village in the southern part of Mizoram, Jeje has not looked back ever since and the striker has gone on to score 19 goals for the Indian national team.
Goals and Jeje are like two sides of the same coin. The maverick striker scored 32 goals from 44 matches in the 2015–16 season. Along the way, Jeje set and broke a few records—he scored 8 goals in 2015–16 Federation Cup surpassing Bhaichung Bhutia for most goals scored in a single edition of the tournament. He scored 6 goals in the 2015–16 season of the AFC Cup, the most ever managed by any Indian player. The former India U-19 and the U-22 captain was voted as the Emerging Player of the League in the first edition of the Indian Super League, and has already scored 13 goals in the Indian Super League—the most by any Indian player. It came as no surprise when he was voted as Player of the Year by the All India Football Federation in 2016. He was also voted as Indian Footballer of the Year for 2015–2016 season by Football Players Association of India (FPAI, equivalent to Professional Footballers Association in England). He is currently one of the most valued players in the Indian Super League.
It can be safely said that Jeje enjoys the status of being the face of Mizoram football at the national stage. His records, awards and achievements have inspired a generation of young footballers to shine at the highest stages possible. It is heart-warming to note that Jeje continues to remain humble and tries his best to give back to the community through charitable works.
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