Nestled between mountains and hills in the far northeastern corner of India, Mizoram shares international borders with Bangadesh and Myanmar, and state borders with Assam, Tripura and Manipur. The native inhabitants of the state are called Mizos. The origin of the Mizos is obscure as they are mostly dependent on oral tradition to trace their roots and reconstruct their history. Prominent Mizo historian B. Lalthangliana writes that they crossed the Tiau River, which flows between Mizoram and Myanmar, sometime around AD 1700. Ever since, the Mizos have made what is now known as Mizoram their home. Mizo Hills was officially recognised as part of British India in 1895. In 1898, the north and south hills were amalgamated into Lushai Hills District with Aizawl as its headquarters. In 1919, Lushai Hills was declared a Backward Tract under Government of India Act and was further declared Excluded Area in 1935. In 1952, the Lushai Hills Autonomous District Council came into being leading to the abolition of indigenous systems of administration (the Mizos had chiefs who independently headed village units as administrators and guardians for their people).
In 1959, Mizoram was hit by the devastating cyclic Mautam[i] famine, recorded to have occurred in 1862 and 1911 as well. More than a hundred deaths were reported during this perilous time. Feeling neglected by the state of Assam as well as the Government of India, the Mizo National Front was formed under the leadership of the charismatic Laldenga in 1961 with the goal of achieving sovereign independence for the Mizo people. On March 1, 1966, the Mizo National Front made a declaration of independence from the Government of India.
In an effort to suppress the uprising, the Government of India carried out an extensive airstrike over Aizawl lasting nearly five hours, forcing civilians to flee to adjacent villages. Many houses and properties were destroyed in the process. This remains the solitary incident of independent India resorting to airstrikes within its own territory. The period of socio-political unrest lasted for twenty years and came to a complete resolution only on June 30, 1986, with the signing of the Mizoram Peace Accord between the Mizo National Front and the Government of India.
Mizoram became a full-fledged state in 1987, 15 years after it became a Union Territory in 1972. In spite of the long period of political turbulence, Mizoram is one of the most peaceful states in India today.
A brief glimpse into the history of football in Mizoram
Though Mizoram, today, is known across India for its football, the history of football in Mizoram does not date back very far. It can be traced back to the month of April, 1917, during which the First World War was at large. Mizo men numbering at least 2,100 were given their final farewell at the Assam Rifles Ground, known as Lammual, before they departed to join the Allied forces in their fight against Germany.
Amidst several devastating experiences faced by the Mizo soldiers fighting under compulsion for their British colonizers, they were introduced to football by their Western counterparts for the very first time. It is believed that the Mizo soldiers who played football on the outskirts of the French capital, Paris, a few weeks after their departure from Mizoram were the first among the Mizos to do so. The game became popular among the Mizo soldiers, who then continued to play and teach their friends and neighbours upon their return to Mizoram after the War ended.
The sport soon gained huge popularity among the sport-loving Mizos, who quicky learnt the rules of the game. By 1926, the game had gained so many enthusiasts that an idea for a tournament was conceived by a group of pioneers in the field of sports, including L.H. Liana, Chuauthuama, Hrawva and Killuaia. They approached a local businessman and philanthropist, Pachhunga, to donate a trophy for a football tournament. They organised the first ever football tournament in Mizoram the same year. The tournament was called Pachhunga Football Trophy and was a big success for thirty-one years, till 1958.
The Chhotelal Seth Football Shield was also played in 1933 between Mizo soldiers and non-Mizo soldiers of the Assam Rifles. The Shield had been donated by the rich Marwari businessman Chhotelal Seth. The match has an intriguing backdrop that is telling of the prejudices outsiders tend to have towards the Mizo people, and how the Mizos have had to prove themselves time and again. The then Assam Rifle Commandant, W.B. Shakespeare, was often heard asserting that the Mizos were not fit to serve as soldiers owing to their cowardice in the face of challenges. This provoked the few Mizo soldiers who had been recruited into the Assam Rifles. It was decided that a football match should be played to test the bravery and ability of the Mizo soldiers. The Mizo team barely managed to form a proper team as there were just a handful of Mizo soldiers then.
Lammual was packed to its full capacity as a huge crowd turned up to witness the match that was more than just an ordinary match. Lammual became a battlefield where the Mizo soldiers would try to prove their worth among the people who refused to acknowledge them as their equals. The intensity with which this match was anticipated can be summed up in these words by Jemadar Bawichhunga, the first Junior Commissioned Officer among the Mizos, 'If anyone of us sustains injuries during the match, money will be collected for necessary treatments at the hospital in Shillong.'
As the match kicked off on the muddy pitch, the Mizo team played with all the ferocity the game allowed. Determined to win the match, they went both after the ball and their opponents. Though the opponent team displayed superior skills, it did not deter the Mizo soldiers, who eventually scored the first goal of the match in the second half, making the spectators erupt into a thunderous applaud under heavy rainfall. The goal scored by Hmuia was followed by Thangchhinga’s goal. The opponent team, which mainly consisted of Gorkha soldiers, fought back and scored a goal too but the match ended in favour of the Mizo soldiers and the thousands of spectators gathered there were brimming with pride as they cheered for the Mizo soldiers.
The climactic moment came when the Inspector General of Police handed over the shield to the victors and declared, 'Only the Gorkha bravery has been talked about until now, but the Mizos have proved that they are braver.' He then told the crowd that fifty Mizo soldiers would be recruited by the Assam Rifles as the day’s event had proved the Mizos deserving. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the Mizos had conquered hearts through football just as they continue to do so today.
As more attention was paid towards establishing a semblance of professionalism in sports, the year 1945 saw the birth of Aijal[ii] Sports Association (ASA) which dwindled away by 1952 due to the lack of proper infrastructure and funds. In 1954, Mr Lalsangliana along wit H.K. Bawihchhuaka, Lalhmingthanga and a few other partisans reinstated the Aijal Sports Association. This renewed the fervour that had never really faded and was a huge boost for the sporting community of Mizoram, particularly for the footballers. The association further popularised the game, and paved way for footballers, even with political turmoil hindering the progress of the game. The ASA sent 15 players to represent the Lushai District in the Inter District Football Tournament hosted by Silchar in 1957. The current Chief Minister of Mizoram, Lal Thanhawla, was among the players who represented the district.
Odd matches now and then kept the spirit of passionate Mizo footballers alive, in spite of the bleak possibility of pursuing football as a profession. In 1958, Dawrpui Sporting Club defeated the 1st Assam Rifles team in a match that has gone down in history as significant because it boosted the morale and confidence of Mizo footballers, who have slowly but surely acquainted themselves with the belief that they could defeat teams from beyond the borders of their land. The first ever trophy from a campaign outside the district reached Aizawl in 1962. The Mizoram football team had participated and gone on to become champions in the R.K. Jain Memorial Challenge Shield Football Tournament at Karimganj.
Soon after the declaration of Mizoram as a Union Territory in 1972, the Aijal Sports Association was renamed Mizoram Sports Association to be more inclusive of other regions in Mizoram. The year 1973 saw the birth of a separate association for football—the Mizoram Football Association (MFA). Three years after its inception, a proper election was held by MFA for better organisation and function. In 1976, MFA saw its first president, Lal Thanhawla, after a blueprint for Mizoram State Sports Council was drafted. The council initiated the birth of a handful of ad hoc state level sports associations among which was MFA. MFA soon got affiliated to All India Football Federation as Mizoram attained statehood on February 20, 1987, and participated in Santosh Trophy and Senior National Football Championship for the first time.
Once affiliated to the AIFF, Mizoram gradually increased its participation in tournaments outside the state and even met with some successes in minor tournaments. The most significant achievement during those years happened in 1989 when Mizoram reached the semifinal at the National Junior Football Championship in Shillong. Two years later, Mizoram went on to lift the Gold Cup at Thimphu, Bhutan, making history as the team returned with the coveted trophy from their foreign campaign. It is said that a big crowd turned up at Lammual to welcome the players with a grand reception upon their arrival.
The late 1980s and early 1990s marked a swift progress in the football scene at the local level with several tournaments being organised by patrons of the sport. Mizoram had its first private football club in 1983. Founder president K. Liantlinga named the club El-El Sports Club after his mother, Lalnui. His squad comprised of about 20 players who were college students. The only club with a private owner, El-El Sports Club competed with existing government departmental clubs like MRP Sporting Club, PWD Sporting Club, Power Sporting Club, PHE Sporting Club and about 15 other clubs which were locality based.
El-El Sports Club, despite their infancy, went on to succeed in many local tournaments and in neigbouring states. Given the little exposure to foreign football and game tactics possible then, K. Liantlinga would collect videos of recorded matches from FA Cup, UEFA Champions League and World Cup and make his players watch those videos. Since his players were mostly well educated, they could understand the English commentaries, giving the team an edge over other teams that relied on local talent and knowledge. Back then such video cassettes cost about a thousand rupees per cassette and had to be imported from Burma. Recalling those days, K. Liantlinga, who went on to become the President of MFA from 1996 to 2002 and an MLA in the Government of Mizoram, reminiscences, 'Owning a private club took a heavy toll on my savings. We had to spend Rs. 5000 on average for each tournament and even though we won several trophies, we did not receive any cash award because football was still largely seen as an amateur game.'[iii]
The winning teams walked away with trophies and certificates but received no cash award for the clubs to sustain themselves financially. This issue was addressed in 1986 when Venghlui Sporting Club, under the presidency of El-El Sports Club founder-owner K. Liantlinga organised Lalthangvunga Memorial Football Tournament for Men & Women. This tournament created history as the first to offer prize money and match money. [iv]
Besides these, the participating clubs were also awarded match money for each game. Both teams shared fifty per cent of the money from ticket sales. Around this time, local businessmen, offices and hotel owners also started considering investments in the football club as a clever business move, seeing how passionate the Mizos were about football. Several other tournaments like Federation Cup, Laldenga Gold Cup, Army Commandant Football Trophy, Lalrinliana Memorial Football Trophy, to name a few, were organised during these years.
To decentralise the sport, Mizoram was divided into 15 zones in 1993, and the number of zones has now risen to 25. This step has been crucial for efficiency in administration. In 1994, the system of Club Registration was introduced in Aizawl, making it mandatory for all serious clubs to be registered. In 1998, eight District Football Associations (DFAs) were created for the eight districts in Mizoram—Aizawl, Kolasib, Mamit, Champhai, Serchhip, Lunglei, Lawngtlai and Siaha. This proved to be an important milestone as it facilitated talent scouting. Under-16, under-19 and under-21 tournaments are also organised at the state level in which each district sends a team. Mizoram state team for each age group is subsequently formed by picking players who perform promisingly in the tournaments.
Though the sport has consistently shown a steady and gradual progress, football came to be seen as a viable career choice only after 2010. The inauguration of the semi-professional league, Mizoram Premier League in 2012, the introduction of India’s first FIFA Grassroots course in Mizoram in October 2012, the signing of an MoU between MFA and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) Mission under the Government of Mizoram establishing SSA-Tata Trust Grassroots programme are some of the recent steps that have been taken to professionalise the sport. Though Mizoram has had professional footballers such as the much beloved S. Malsawmtluanga, followed by Malsawmdawngliana, Vanlalrova and Jerry Zirsanga, very few Mizo players played professionally. Today, Mizoram boasts of 42 players in the last edition of the I-League.
To add to the many achievements of MFA, it had also launched the Young Legends’ League (YLL) on September 29, 2017, with 8one Foundation making YLL the first structured league in India for children aged between 6 and 12. The league to be aided by AIFF is based in Champhai, the football-obsessed district located in the eastern part of Mizoram. The 5-a-side league thrives to provide a platform for children to play competitive matches every weekend. The league expects to feature over 500 matches per season with each side playing approximately 30 matches over a period of 6 to 8 months.
Varun Achreja, founder of 8one Foundation and Football Solution, points out that they had decided to work with Mizoram Football Association not just because of its active and professional approach towards the sport but also because of the sporting culture in Mizoram. He claims that ‘the football-loving Mizo people will appreciate the aim to leverage YLL as a community-mobilising tool that ensures the involvement of everyone in Champhai to execute this league and contribute to the development of kids through football.’ Having professional ties with several Mizo footballers as a consultant, Achreja also observes, ‘'Mizo players are very attached to their roots and are motivated to give back to their community. They understand the game and the value of game time, and to them, success is not determined just by how much money they make, but also by how much they contribute to their community through the opportunities football has opened up for them.'[v]
Lammual: The Mizo Wembley
Lammual at Aizawl bears tremendous significance in the socio-cultural life and history of the Mizo community. Also known as the Assam Rifles (AR) Ground, Lammual translates to 'Parade Ground' ('Lam' meaning dance/parade; 'mual' meaning ground) and is called so because of the regular parades of the Assam Rifles regiment that took place there. Among the football lovers, the ground is referred to as the ‘Mizo Wembley’, considering the wide range of football competitions and events that have and continue to take place there.
Built back in 1892 by the Lushai Hills Military Police affiliated to the British Army, Lammual has been the hub of religious, social and political activities at Aizawl from the pre-Independence era. Several prominent politicians and leaders, including Laldenga (first Chief minister of Mizoram) and Jawaharlal Nehru have addressed mass gatherings at the ground. It has served as a helipad during significant military operations and political developments; a helicopter landed for the first time in Mizoram at Lammual in 1962. The Mizo National Front (MNF) mostly operated from around the Lammual during the 1960s and has been the site of consequential events including the infamous air bombings of 1966. Of late, it plays venue for one of the most important festivals of Mizoram—the Chapchar Kut. Several concerts, multi-sports events, and even mass prayers take place regularly on the grounds.
Herbert Vaughan, an English soldier from the British Army’s Medical Corps, was instrumental in establishing Lammual as the main centre of Mizoram football. Back in 1944, he was posted in the Lushai Hills and played every evening with the local people at the ground. This led to the popularisation of the game in the town. While football was already quite popular among the local folk, Vaughan brought in perspectives of tactics and techniques, thus laying a strong foundation for football culture to flourish. He even played as the goalkeeper for the Aizawl Eleven team and became popular as one of the best goalkeepers in eastern India. Such was the passion involved that Vaughan ensured his ashes were scattered on the ground by his family members, upon his death in 2016.
Given the history, the creation of the artificial turf pitch at Lammual was a big stepping stone in providing opportunities for local football to prosper further. Commissioned by the state government at a cost of 4 crores, the turf was laid on the September 23, 2010, and officially inaugurated by Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla on the February 28, 2011. The inauguration was a momentous occasion and involved a match played between Chief Minister XI team and Speaker XI team—a rare occasion when members of a state government were personally and physically involved in sports.
Post the inauguration, MFA made full use of the efforts of the state government and set forth several initiatives. It also began hosting several national level matches, including I-league matches, thus spurring local interest. The turf was a statement of intent by the MFA and has heralded a slew of achievements, enabling the state to establish itself as the powerhouse of Indian football. It is only fitting that after most achievements of significance, the Lammual becomes the venue for celebratory gatherings where thousands of fans descend to savour and rejoice in the moments of glory.
Football fandom in Mizoram
Football fandom is huge in Mizoram. If one were to approach people on the streets—both male and female—in any part of Mizoram to ask them of the football club they support, a good majority would be ready with a spontaneous answer. Most of them would name a European club as European leagues are the ones they are most familiar with. Though Mizoram remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world, many European clubs may be surprised to find many hardcore and passionate fans among the Mizo people. Most of the Mizo football fans cherish dreams of watching their European teams play in person on their home pitch, but economic backwardness of their state hinders them from actually making their dreams come true. With the absence of multinational companies and large-scale industries, most of the Mizo youth strive for a job in the government sector as it provides security with fixed monthly salaries. But in spite of their economic backwardness, the football fans have found ways to show their love and support for their clubs.
The tech-savvy Mizo youth have adopted social media as a platform where they can come together to discuss their football and other sport disciplines. On Facebook, several fan groups like Mizo Manchester United Fans, Mizo Chelsea Fans, Gooners’ Inn, Mizo Liverpool Fans (L.F.C.), etc., have been created. The members are actively involved in their groups which is especially abuzz with activity on game nights. A frustrated fan lashing out against an under-performing player or an excited fan claiming to have witnessed the most beautiful goal ever scored through posts in such groups is a common sight to behold. Besides exclusive fan groups for different clubs, there are also several common groups on Facebook and Whatsapp where fans of different clubs come together with all members ready and eager to roll out words of praises for the clubs they support even as they good-naturedly censure their rival clubs and heatedly exchange views about why their club is the best club in the world.
However, football fandom is not just limited to the online community. Mizos are innately sociable owing to the close-knit nature of their community, and this is reflected even in their approach towards fellow football fans. Many indoor and outdoor activities such as dinner get-togethers, picnics, football matches, etc., are regularly organised with great success. Different charitable activities are also carried out by them. For instance, on November 15, 2013, ardent football fans of four English clubs—Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool—gathered at the civil hospital in Aizawl for a joint blood donation. As many as 376 fans came together to show that the ‘love for the game’ can bind fans of rival clubs together for a good cause, no matter how fierce the competition may be among the clubs they root for. Though the different fan clubs had separately donated blood on several occasions, that was the first time a joint blood donation was organised. The act of virtuous deed by the football fans is characteristic of a quality called ‘tlawmngaihna’ inherent in the Mizo culture which may be loosely translated as ‘self-sacrifice’ or ‘altruism’.
Now that Mizoram has the semi-professional MPL (Mizoram Premier League), football fans have been faithfully following their local teams as well. Match days of MPL often see a packed ground, especially towards the end of the league when expectations and tension rise. Fans come ready to shout and cheer for their teams, and holler out well-meaning advice from the stands if they feel that the players are not meeting expectations.
Mizo football fans are faithful followers of their European teams on television and active supporters of their local teams. Mizo teams have supporters not only in Mizoram but across the country as well. Mizo communities in different cities would make sure that a Mizo team—whether it is Aizawl FC in the I-League or Mizoram football team in various tournaments—would never have to play without supporters. Taking time out from their busy schedules, fans would travel hundreds of kilometers to cheer for Mizo players. The Mizos have a strong sense of loyalty towards fellow Mizos, especially among people from other communities, and this is manifest even in their approach towards football.
Indian sportswriter Akarsh Sharma who has travelled extensively both within and outside the country to watch football matches in different settings observes from his experiences:
Watching football with the Mizos is easily my fondest memory of watching sport in India. They form a wonderful football crowd. When you're watching the sport in Mizoram, you get a strong sense of being right in the heart of a unique and authentic football culture, the kind of which is hard, if not impossible, to find elsewhere in India. A football audience aptly showcases the togetherness and simplicity that are hallmarks of the Mizo community. They're more joyous than ferocious, more welcoming than partisan -- and the distinctive rhythm of a Mizo crowd beautifully complements the entertaining and expansive style played by most Mizo teams.[vi]
Football: More than just a sport for the Mizos
For the tribal community with an indigenous population of less than ten lakh, football is more than just a sport to be played recreationally or professionally. It has been, for decades, a medium of reassertion of the worth and capabilities of the sidelined community that is struggling to fit in the mainstream culture of the Indian nation. Ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic differences have estranged them from the rest of India, especially from the majoritarian communities in mainland India. The various sport disciplines have been instrumental in moulding a bond between the Mizos and the rest of the Indians.
With many Mizo players making their mark in various football teams across the country, Mizoram is slowly coming to be regarded as the football powerhouse of India. The numerous achievements of Mizo players, Mizo clubs and the Mizoram football team have garnered interest in the people and culture of Mizoram. Aizawl FC becoming the Hero I-league 2016–17 champions in their second season in the I-League was the favourite story of all sports writers back in April and May of 2017. There are talks that a Bollywood movie is to be made to tell the magical story of Aizawl FC. It is only befitting that a state as passionate about football as Mizoram should have the I-League trophy, along with several other trophies, in its hearth, acting as a constant reminder for its people that the sky really is the limit if they work as hard for anything as they have for football.
A close-knit community, the Mizos had traditional institutions called ‘Zawlbuk’ which served as dormitories for young men past adolescence. There, they were taught everything they needed to know about life even before they were introduced to modern education. They learnt as a group and performed almost all activities as a group which, perhaps, is one of the reasons why the Mizos are so zealous about the game where teamwork is one of the most important aspects.
For several reasons that could be understood only by the Mizos themselves, or people from their sister states in Northeast India, or anybody who has ever shown sincere interest in the people from the region, football cannot be considered just a sport or a source of entertainment or a viable career option, but it is a platform, a medium through which the Mizos tell their story to the rest of the world. Mizoram had failed to capture the attention of mainstream media in 1966 and the following twenty years when she fought for independence from India, during which the people suffered all kinds of misery and torture. Though Mizoram attained full-fledged statehood in 1987, it remains obscure to the rest of India even today just as its own history was obscure.
With no proper platform to validate their identity, their ethnicity and their culture in the national scene for a long time, when a Mizo chants ‘AIZAWL FC’ during an I-League match or sings the state song ‘RO MIN REL SAK ANG CHE’ during a match, it is not just for the football club, or the Mizoram football team but for Mizoram, for the Mizo people, and for the Mizo culture. Football, the sport dearly loved by the Mizos, has not just entertained them or given them a sense of achievement these last few years, it has given them a voice. It is also a matter of pride for for the Mizos that along with football, the last decade has seen considerable progress in various other sport disciplines.
The author would like to thank the following people for their assistance and support in creating the article: HC Lal Muanpuia, Office Secrectary MFA; Shreyas Rao, GoSports Foundation; K. Liantlinga; Lalnghinglova Hmar, Honorary Secretary, MFA; Malsawmtluanga, Founder owner, inkhel.com; and Mark Lalduhsaka, Marketing Officer.
[i] In Mizo, ‘Mau’ means bamboo and ‘tam’ means death. Mautam is a peculiar ecological phenomenon occurring roughly once in fifty years, resulting in the widespread flowering of a particular species of bamboo plant, the Melocanna baccifera. This stage is followed by the death of the plants, and their regeneration by seeds. There is a huge spurt in the number of seeds, which are eaten by rodents, especially rats. An excess of seeds results in a considerable increase in rat populations which proceed to ravage rice and other grain harvests occurring during that time, creating famine-like conditions for human populations.
[ii] Aizawl was called Aijal until Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1972.
[iii] Personal interview on November 4, 2017, at his home in Venghlui, Aizawl.
[iv] Awards were handed out as follows:
Champion Trophy and Rs. 10,000
Runner-up Trophy and Rs. 5,000
Top Scorer Trophy and Rs. 500
Best Player Trophy and Rs. 500
Champion Trophy and Rs. 5, 000
Runners-up Trophy and Rs. 3,000
Top Scorer Trophy and Rs. 200
Best Player Trophy and Rs. 200
[v] Phone interview on October 25, 2017.
[vi] Phone interview on October 25, 2017.
Lalthangliana, B. Mizo Chanchin Chik Taka Chhuina. Aizawl: B. Lalthangliana, 2011.
Royte, Zoliana. Mizoram Sports Chanchin. Aizawl: Directorate of Sports and Youth Services, Government of Mizoram, 2000.
Mizoram Football Association. Mizoram Football. Aizawl: Mizoram Football Association, 2017.
Mizoram Football Association. Mizoram Football Association 25th Anniversary Souvenir. Aizawl: Mizoram Football Association, 1998.
Zothansanga, John. Savun Hampuar: The Mizoram Football Story. Aizawl: Lois Bet, 2017.