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The Last Lap to Victory: stories from Aizawl's journey to I-League glory (Part Two)

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The morning's fog leapt past the creek as four friends walked down a parking lot past a row of mid sized buses. The sun was barely up, and the trees in the surrounding hills were barely visible in the pale light of dawn through the thin clouds that floated over them.

The four friends were desperate. They needed to arrange for a ride to Shillong and back; but most of the buses plying daily to the Meghalaya capital and back were already booked to the brink with an extra rush of people making the journey, and there were not many private buses left to reserve for a full trip.

The bus owner they met had a 30 seater vehicle available to make the trip. The price he demanded was too steep for the 20-odd friends who wanted to travel. Thankfully the owner already knew a group of 12 who had approached to book the same bus but found the price too high. He suggested both groups should use the same bus, and although it'd be slightly overcrowded the situation would be managable. At a Rs 600 per head return fare, the deal wasn't the best they would get on a regular day, but it wasn't that bad either.

The friends were relieved. One of them called up his brother to tell him to get the banners printed. The excited voice from the other end was loud enough for everyone to hear despite not being on speaker phone, "Aizawl FC will be champions, oh! We'll bring the trophy back on the bus!"

As the friends stopped for tea, one of them was concerened, "I have to be back at office on Monday. Will they make it back overnight?"

Another replied, "When Mizoram won Santosh Trophy they declared a holiday. I'm sure the same will happen this time."

"If we win," said the former.

"Shut up," came the retort, "We just need a draw. We beat Lajong at home. We'll get it. Easy."

***

The journey from Aizawl to Shillong is an unforgiving 400-kilometer ride through tricky mountain roads that takes almost day to make. It's notorious for being taxing and somewhat dangerous due to occasional extreme weather conditions, and no one takes any particular pleasure in it, especially if it involves a quick return journey. 

But on Saturday 28th April, an unprecedented amount of people climbed into buses, SUVs and personal cars - many of them decorated with red flags and banners - to form a convoy of vehicles that set out for the Meghalaya capital. 

The travelers came in different groups. Packs of friends, a few families, groups organized by local churches and even a couple of junior football teams. Some had bunked school to spend hours making little replicas of the I-League trophy, others went around gathering chips, smoked pork or soft drinks for the road. When they rolled out through the National Highway 306, they left behind a city preparing for a siege. Sunday, already a day where shops stayed shut and people liked to spend time with their families after church service, was going to be see an absolute shutdown as everyone prepared to watch Aizawl FC take on Shillong Lajong for the I-League title. 

As the convoy approached Sairang through the twisty terrain, a couple of cars turned left towards Lengpui. These were the fortunate one who would take a flight to Guwahati and hire a taxi from there to reach Shillong via a wide, comfortable, well-maintained highway with a couple of good Mizo restaurants along the road. Others continued on the NH 306, following the moody path of the Tlewng river. For hours they continued a steady descent down unsteady roads, past Khamrang through North Kawnpui and North Thingdawl, beyond Kolasib. Soon the terrain grew flatter, and the road more bearable as they entered Assam after passing Vairengte. They sped through Vaga and Sadagram to reach the major pit stop in their journey, Silchar. This is where two other buses full of fans coming in from Imphal met up with the convoy.

From Silchar they moved up National Highway 6. They had to move at a slow speed because the terrain was mountainous again and the road narrower. They drove past Kalain and finally entered Meghalaya. Soon they were making their way past Umkiang where a look down the valley gave them an expansive view of Bangladesh.

As the tedious journey continued through the Narpuh Reserve Forest, the fans on board sang songs and played games to keep themselves occupied. Sometimes, a chant of 'Ro Min Rel Sak Ang Che' from another vehicle saw passengers of multiple buses join in, turning into a caravan-wide chorus. 

By now they had been on the road for the better part of a day, and the fatigue was getting to some of the travelers. "It'll be worth it," others told them, "Aizawl FC will win the league."

When they reached Jowai it was a sigh of relief for everyone. The finishing line was now in sight. A few more hours of uphill journey through twisty roads and an considerably increased traffic seemed never-ending, but finally, after a day's back breaking journey holed up in crowded buses, the fans finally filed out, stretching their arms and legs, taking in an eyefull of the beautiful view of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, a stone's throw from the main parking lot besides Polo Ground.

***

"I don't care who we are playing, we play to win," told Thangboi Singto to the crowd of journalists assembled at the pre-match press conference.

Ever since the North East Derby was set up as a title decider, some nasty rumours had started circulating that Shillong Lajong would take it easy and let fellow North-Eastern club Aizawl FC take the title.

Singto had been coaching at Shillong Lajong for years now. He was there during the second division days, he was there when the club was going through a transition when taking on the top division. He was part of the process when Lajong painstakingly built its grassroots network across North-East India to create a direct channel for talented kids from the region to the highest level. He stepped up as the new head coach when the club needed direction to hold its own in a fast changing footballing system with ISL around the corner. He was about to give Shillong Lajong its best finish in the I-League ever. They were finishing fifth after years of trying.

Comparatively, Aizawl FC just entered the top division the previous season, got relegated, was brought back and now they were staring at a league title. While Shillong Lajong were taking the hard road to slowly build them up with home grown talent and balancing the books while big clubs took away their prominent foreign signings like Cornell Glen and Taisuke Matsugae. Meanwhile, Aizawl made a few good signings and suddenly they were on a fast track to glory, and being seen as the quientessential club from North-East India.

Singto wanted to win. This season was always going to be special because they were talking about making a new top division with ISL teams and the 3 big clubs from I-League and Lajong wasn't even part of the conversation. This could be their last season in the top division for the next few years and he wanted to underscore the fact that this had been a good one. Some of the club's young prospects were now getting national team call ups, the club was about to get its highest finish in the league; all of that would be swept under the rug if Aizawl lifted the trophy in Shillong. Singto wanted to vindicate the efforts of his players by not letting that happen.

The North-East Derby was now at the centre of Indian football, and the first leg had not gone well. For the first time in the league he had to taste defeat to Aizawl FC, and it wasn't something he was going to let happen again; not this time, not this season.

The fanbase was abuzz before the match. They were saying 4,000 fans were making the journey from Mizoram to be at the game. All liquor shops in Shillong were about to run empty, was the ongoing joke. 

Singto steeled himself. No matter what, at the end of the game, he wanted his own fans to something to drink to. 

***

They stood in a circle next to a line of parked buses at the North-Western corner of the Polo Ground bus stand cum parking lot. The afternoon sun was occasionally visible through the clouds idly floating over Shillong, but they did not threaten to be a chaotic presence as they had been a week ago as Aizawl FC took on Mohun Bagan.

The people in the circle, holding red flags of Aizawl FC and carrying banners, stood submerged in prayer as the hustle of afternoon traffic went on around them.

The setting sun was casting one last glance at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, soon to disappear behind the elevated Lawmali Road. The matchday fever was finally kicking in as groups of threes and fours sporting Shillong Lajong shirts and banners had started walking into the Polo Sports Complex, joining an anxious bunch of Aizawl FC fans who had been hanging around since morning, tickets in hand, waiting for the gates to open.

Somebody glued to a smartphone looked up to break a worrisome news, "All four referees officiating tonight are Bengalis. Aizawl FC management is complaining to AIFF."

An uncomfortable murmur went around the vicinity, and even the Lajong fans were not very happy about it. One said, "How can they do this? Why Bengali referees when a Bengal club is in title race?" Another answered, "This is what Bengalis do. They will make sure Mohun Bagan become champions. Aizawl FC should boycott the match."

A bunch of angry shouts and yells went around, making the security personnel posted around the area nervous about a possible fan clash. A couple of men in uniform jogged in, but were relieved to find the two sets of fans arguing against the Federation, not each other.

"That's what happens," said one elderly supporter, "they won't let us be champions. They don't want a team from North East to be champions. And then they will make ISL the top league and relegate us. The fat pockets rule everything."

A few others, though, were not having any of that negative talk. "Why are you so negative," they argued. "Has the club said they won't play? Are the players giving up? Did we come all the way here not to see a match?"

A chorus of agreement went around. "One fight at a time," someone shouted. "First we need to win the I-League. We'll see what happens later."

A huge cheer went up, followed by a spontaneous chant of "Aizawl FC, Aizawl FC, ole ole ole." A couple of ardent Shillong Lajong fans tried booing and jeering but they could not be heard because most of their fellow Lajong faithfuls did not join in. 

As the floodlights in the stadium flickered on, the gates were opened and the throngs of Aizawl and Lajong fans, sometimes hard to tell apart in the evening light because both wore red jerseys and brandished red flags. When they marched in side by side past the narrow ticket-checking lanes into the stadium, it did not seem like they were supporting opposing teams. 

***

A capacity crowd of twenty three thousand held their breath as Bipin Singh ran breakneck towards the Aizawl FC box with the ball, eager to suck in every inch of space available ahead of him.

He ran straight ahead, making sure the nearest defender whom he robbed the ball from remained at a fair distance. He saw two white shirts inside the penalty box, and committed to continuing straight ahead than cutting diagonally right towards the goalmouth.

As he ran, putting in every bit of energy left in his body behind it, he tilted his head, trying to spot his teammate who could make his tangent sprint a fruitful one.

And there he was. Between two defenders, dashing in a speed that matched Bipin's own, looking at him with wide eyes sniffing for the pass, was Aser Pierrick Dipanda. Time ran at a fraction of its original speed as Bipin met Dipanda's gaze.

For a fraction of a second, Bipin let the move hang in limbo. The defender behind him was almost catching up and he was about to reach the goal line. He kept his eyes on Dipanda's position, making sure he was ready for the lunge when the time came.

As he saw the broad white line that he could not cross draw near his feet, he gave Dipanda smallest of nods, the kind that didn't even take any thinking any more after doing it thousands of times in the practice sessions under the watchful eyes of Thangboi Singto. Dipanda's head straightened up and eyebrows started rising even before the ball left Bipin's feet.

It was perfect down to the inch. Bipin's cross hit Dipanda hard in the forehead. The Cameroonian striker didn't have to do anything other than giving the ball a mild direction. Aizawl FC keeper Albino Gomes, confused whether to take guard against Bipin or Dipanda, could only stare helplessly as the ball rocketed towards the goalpost.

But the direction wasn't perfect. It hit the crossbar and shot downwards. In a flash, the ball bounced on the turf and shot out of the goal. 

Dipanda raised his hands and started celebrating. The Aizawl FC players appealed to the linesman indicating the ball never entered the goal. But the assistant referee signalled for a goal and the referee blew his whistle. Shillong Lajong had the lead.

It took the crowd a good few seconds to realise what was going on. Suddenly, the Lajong fans burst into cheers, and the Aizawl FC fans were caught in a stunned silence. Shillong Lajong had the lead, and suddenly the league title was slipping from Aizawl's hands.

"Bengali linesman didn't allow a legitimate goal," yelled one supporter. Anothe corrected him, saying the replay he was watching on his phone showed the ball had bounced behind the goal line. "They are celebrating in Kolkata," he said.

The Aizawl FC players tried their hardest to hold their own as nerves took over. They had to get a goal or everything they had worked towards all season, the dream they had inched towards with each match and hard-earned point, would be destroyed. 

A shaky back and forth contest continued till the match was about half an hour in. Suddenly, the assembled Aizawl FC supporters burst into loud celebrations, apparently without a cause. Khalid Jamil, the head coach, looked around puzzled. "Mohun Bagan just conceded," a staff told him, "Chennai City are leading in Kolkata."

The word spread all around. For the fans, it was a tit for tat moment. And for the Aizawl players, it was a return of hope. Once again, they were back to being in a position to win the league.

"Come on boys," yelled Jamil from the sidelines. "Don't leave it to the other game, we're going to do this on our own!"

At half-time, as his side still trailed, Jamil eagerly asked about the score in the other game. Mohun Bagan were back level, he was told.

The league was going down to the wire.

***

Mohun Bagan were back in the hunt, and the only way to diffuse that was to get a goal for themselves. That's what the Aizawl FC players were told by Jamil at half-time, and they came out with desperate determination in the second half.

The game was much faster now than the first half, and the tackles more reckless than ever before from both sides. There were no more concerns about preserving strength or safeguarding themselves for the next match in a tightly scheduled league season. These 45 minutes were to live and die for.

Al Amnah got a quick through ball when he sprinted into the box with some space. The creator of the goal that helped Aizawl beat Mohun Bagan tried to take a quick shot on goal on a half turn. The ball went just over the crossbar.

"Keep pushing, keep pushing," repeated a familiar voice from the sidelines as Aizawl threw everything forward. 

Then came a corner kick from the East end. The curling corner kick took an outward swing long enough to confuse 3 Lajong defenders who were shielding the white shirts around them. In the end, Kingsley seemed to just stand still and allow the ball to come and hit him. And with the slightest of nudges, he directed the ball towards Bayi Kamo.

Kamo had positioned himself right in front of goalkeeper Vishal Kaith, beyond the scrum of defenders. As the ball came towards him Kaith jumped towards him to intervene. But Kamo didn't give him the time. He did a solid backheel on the ball and it went past Kaith and flew towards the target. A sure goal.

Kingsley had already raised his hands in celebrations when he caught it with the corner of his eye. The ball was clean past the keeper, but there was one more red shirted player in the way. Pritam Singh, the same defender who had played Kamo onside in an advantageous position, was waiting by the goal-line. He didn't even have much of a reaction time. The ball just hit him where he stood. 

A collective groan broke out among the Aizawl FC fans. Kamo held his head and sat down. Shillong Lajong had survived. Aizawl fell inches short of getting the goal they needed to realise their title dreams.

The game went on. Shillong Lajong were not letting, up, they wanted a second goal. Samuel got a good ball that he quickly tried to put away from outside the box but the ball went well over the box.

Aizawl countered. A quick invasion set up Jayesh Rane with the ball well inside the box, with all the space and a wide view of the goal. He let fly, and once again the shot went too high. Groans from the visiting fans filled the stadium once again. The clock was ticking. It was an hour into the game already and the nerves were showing.

Right then, a long ball from the midfield floated above the entire Lajong defence. William Lalnunfela, the 21 year old striker who had replaced Laltanpuia at halftime, followed the curvature of the ball with a forwrd-tilted body, and made a perfect connection with his head when the ball came swooping down into the box. It went straight past the keeper and into the net.

The gallery exploded in joy. Aizawl players were running in towards William. But the goalscorer had stopped dead on his track, looking at the linesman. The flag was up. Offside.

"Bengali referees! Disallowed a legitimate goal!" Someone shouted. The entire block joined him, yelling angrily at the match officials. Khalid Jamil was having a go at the fourth official, the entire Aizawl FC bench was on their feet. But the referee stood his ground. The linesman had spotted an offside and the goal was disallowed.

The match resumed. Aizawl FC, despite not having gotten that goal due to William being one step offside, were now smelling blood. Attacks continued with even more ferocious intent. And not long afterwards, a similar ball was lofted over the Lajong defence from the midfield.

At the edge of the box, along the defensive line, were William and Kamo with four Lajong defenders. Everyone moved in tandem - leaving no room for an offside call - as the ball came straight down into the box. It got a slight head touch from William. Vishal Kaith got a light touch but could not stop it, he turned back and literally chased the ball as went past him towards the target.

It hit the post. The thousands of Aizawl FC fans who had stood up in anticipation found themselves petrified in the middle of an anxious deep breath. 

But the ball came straight back. Towards William. He had a defender on him but the young striker made a reflex move, thrusting forward his lower body and sticking his leg out.

The connection was perfect. The ball kissed his boot and shot straight past Vishal Kaith, whose momentum had taken him past the goal line, straight into the net. 

In delirious joy, William ran towards the gallery. Ahead of him beyond the athletic tracks, he could lower tier fans all jumping in ecstasy. Some had run up to the barrier between the stands and the pitch and were shaking it so hard it seemed like it was about to break. He was yelling at the top of his voice but the noise in the stadium was so loud he could not hear himself. As he ran he crossed himself and raised two hands in gratitude to God. 

His teammates ran in and hugged him. The entire reserve bench ran towards him and they celebrated. Khalid Jamil held him in a tight embrace, then suddenly dropped his beaming face and shouted, "Get back in, get back in, long time left in the game."

The referee had run in and he was asking them to get on with the game. So they did. The match resumed. This time, Aizawl FC just needed to hold on to become champions. What was happening in Kolkata no longer mattered.

What mattered though was that Shillong Lajong began a desperate drive for getting a second goal. More bodies were committed forward by the home team and the attack intensified. This allowed Aizawl a golden opportunity to seal the deal with a long ball almost sending Kamo through, but Vishak Kaith pulled off a brilliant save to deny him. 

As the clocked ticked past 80 minutes, the chants from the visiting fans intensified. Mohun Bagan had just gotten a second goal and Aizawl FC had to hold on to ensure a league title. And Shillong Lajong were unleashing all sorts of craziness.

Chance after chance came Lajong's way as the Aizawl FC fans watched on with their hearts threatening to jump up their throats. The visitors were barely holding on. There was even a penalty shout for Lajong but the referee deemed the striker's fall to be too much for that light a touch. Aizawl FC fans breathed a sigh of relief.

"Bengali referees," somebody reminded.

Two minutes into added time, Yuta Kinowaki charged in from the left flank. His ball found Redeem Tlang whose first touch cross went straight to Dipanda. 

The league's leading scorer Dipanda had a close view of the entire goal. And the fate of the title was his to change. He took a good look at the title and let fly. The ball hit the woodwork, came back, and spun out of play. The moment was lost. After coming so close again and again, Lajong fell short of getting the goal that would change everything. It seemed like fate.

When the long whistles came from the referee, hardly anyone could for a while. Albino Gomes, the Aizawl keeper, collapsed to the ground, buried his face on the turf and hit the ground repeatedly, yelling into the ground, telling himself it was real; after all those matches, all those travels, all the fatigue, all the crucial losses, all the doubt and pain, it had finally become a reality. 

Zohmingliana Ralte had fallen to his knees, tears streaming down his face as he held his fists clenched to his chest and muttered a prayer with eyes closed. After spending years traveling the country playing for clubs all over, he had finally returned to his hometown this season to take up the mantle of the captain at Aizawl FC. And now he was going to become a part of Mizoram football history. The first Mizo player to lift the top division title with his hands; the leader of those who broke through. 

Khalid Jamil, too, had completely forgotten himself, running a few paces into the pitch, then let himself drop to his knees, touching the turf with his forehead, saying a prayer of thanks. The steely composure that he held throughout the grind of the past few months, when he got fired from Mumbai FC, took up a new position at Aizawl FC, started with a young squad and the few players he could find with the low budget at his disposal, and looked on astonished as the boys went on to make magic on the pitch. After every win, he had told himself not to let himself go, not to let all his happiness show. He had to be calm and grounded to keep the team on course, not let pride get in the players' heads before the job was done. He had held himself back at every happy moment these boys had gifted him over these 18 gruelling matches. But now it was over. Now he could celebrate.

The players were running helter skelter on the pitch. Some had fallen down, others were rushing towards the crowd. The stands were a pandemonium, it was hard to tell who was doing what. Some of the fans had jumped the fans and the security personnel couldn't do much to keep them in check.

One by one the players lined up in front of a section on the west stand filled with Aizawl FC fans. Everyone joined in. Zohmingliana, William, Al Amnah, Bayi Kamo, Khalid Jamil, Jayesh Rane, Albino Gomes. Together they stood, shoulder to shoulder, jumping in tandem as the crowd furiously cheered for them, waving their shirts and banners. Unchoreographed, they fell into a rhythm. A spontaneous dance of the players and the people, perhaps a metaphor of the long journey Mizoram football had taken building up infrastructure and an effective ecosystem throughout the state with thousands of local level players, volunteers, organizers and fans contributing with their skills, sweat and money.

All those local clubs that ran with fans' donations. All those humble academies where wide eyed kids got to begin the process of turning their talent into applied skills. All those grassroot camps held by hundreds of institutions, all those scouts who traveled to the remotest villages because they heard of some kid who was special. The long labour of love that was this Aizawl FC team, which every participant in Mizoram's epic endeavour had helped build up, had finally found vindication. 

Aizawl FC were the champions of India. The undisputable fact stood proudly proclaimed in the cheers of the fans, reverberating across Polo Ground as the players went up and claimed their medals and trophy.

Next day they would fly back to Mizoram to a hero's welcome. Thousands would accompany them in the journey from Lengpui up the National Highway 306, all the way to Lammual. There a stadium full of people would hold a full fledged concert in their honour. The entire state would observe a holiday, as academy kids would line up later to shake their hands; a passing of the baton of sorts, an inception of the dream of one day matching the feat of their heroes.

A national outcry would emerge against the possibility of their forced relegation. It would move officials and politicians alike, and take the form of a public movement. Media around the world would discuss their story.

A team with a budget smaller than what star names playing in India made per season, had beaten everyone to become the true face of Indian football. And everyone who had been a part of that journey - the scouts, the coaches, the club officials, the local organizers, the trialists, the local league players, the fans who had made the back breaking journey to Shillong to witness history and carried the belief with them that despite facing a mountain of odds it was, in the end, possible - would be changed by it, forever.

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