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

The vendors on the edges of Bara Bazaar were standing by the street in a line, with umbrellas over their heads.

Incessant rains throughout the day had caused much disruption, but the Saturday evening crowd looking to stock up on vegetables and fresh meat before the first service Sunday since Easter was thicker than usual. 

A fish seller on one end of the market was way more excited than usual. Standing under the umbrella of his friend, he jumped up and down, clapping his hand to draw attention from prospective customers, yelling at the top of his voice, "Aizawl FC won one nil! Aizawl FC will be champions! Come here, discount on fish! Discount on fish for all Aizawl FC fans!"

Unknown to him, on the other side of the town, a prominent restaurant in Aizawl was putting up a notice of 20% discount for every fan with a match ticket till the end of the month, much to the joy of the thick traffic of fans who were returning from Salem Veng, patiently waiting as a bottleneck of thousands slowly emerged from the narrow lane that led into the central part of the city. 

Hours ago, Aizawl FC beat Mohun Bagan 1-0 in a top of the table I-League clash. The People's Club had taken a 3 point lead at the top with one match left, and a maiden title win was suddenly within grasp. As the sun set and street bulbs slowly came to life supplementing the bright lights of streetside shops, the reality of the situation had begun to dawn on the fans. 

As the rain-soaked red-shirted with their muddy shoes, raincoats and wet jackets paused for breath in between chants and celebratory songs, the most common question they asked one another was, "Are you going to Shillong?"

***

As the members of the Mohun Bagan team jogged onto the pitch at Rajiv Gandhi Stadium for their pre-matchday practice session, the handful of fans in attendance who had traveled from Kolkata to support the Mariners were having a mixed reaction to their surroundings.

A typical view.

"Look how amazing this place is," said one fan, pointing at the open-ended side of the stadium. A few meters beyond the athletic tracks surrounding the astroturf football pitch lay a deep ditch going down to the river Chite Lui, with mountains beyond it stretching all the way to the horizon. Not many stadiums in the world could boast of a view like that.

Another fan was somewhat less amused. "They're cutting us short," he said. "The team has been told to leave the pitch by 5 o' clock, can't stay a minute longer."

By the edge of the lowe tier stand, a few groundsmen sat silently, waiting for the visiting team to finish their practice session, worried by the enormity of a task they had at hand.

"Usually we let visiting teams practice for a while beyond the given time frame," said one, "but look at the advertisement boards by the pitch. There was a big storm last night. Broke some glass in the office rooms and tore apart the adverts we had set up around the pitch. Now we have to clean up the ground and set up the boards again. And it will be dark soon. So we have to start working at 5."

Another groundsman, who was gloating about a selfie he got with Mohun Bagan's star striker Jeje Lalpekhlua who happened to be from Mizoram, said, "At least they are getting to practice in clear weather. When Aizawl FC practiced this morning it was raining and half the pitch was covered in cloud. Don't know why they would practice at a time like that."

Mohun Bagan practice session.

Football fans in Mizoram were familiar with clouds interrupting a match; a phenomenon that had occurred multiple times during the Mizoram Premier League. But for the national league, extreme weather conditions like this were unheard of. Mohun Bagan assistant coach Shankarlal Chakraborty was worried about facing an unknown obstacle on matchday, "Rain and humidity makes the turf more heavy. It already feels harder than it was yesterday. Don't know what it will feel like tomorrow."

***

Matchday morning. Two Aizawl FC fans dressed in jersey and carrying flags watched from a shaded bus stop near Mission Veng as a giant grey cloud approached from an angle with the speed of an express train, flew over their head and nosedived down the slope, taking on the shape of a snake as stormy winds slammed it downwards.

The rain it brought was erratic, changing intensity every few seconds, starting and stopping at will; fairly typical with the weather Aizawl had experienced over the last three days.

The two fans had a shade over their heads, but it didn't matter. For them the rain wasn't coming from above, but flying sideways directly onto their faces. They pulled out a large raincoat that was barely enough for both to huddle behind, and waited a few minutes for the cloud and the rain it brought to pass. 

When the pouring thinned out, they grabbed the opportunity to get onto their scooter and shoot off towards the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Salem Veng.

The journey to the arena from the central part of the city was mostly a descent, a steep one. As the fans took the designated lane away from the main road, they had to press down on their scooter brakes as the twisted, slippery wet roadway channeled an increasingly thick traffic towards the sporting event of the year as far as Mizoram was concerned. 

The road sometimes narrowed into an alley and expanded again. The vehicles inched forward cautiously past houses and churches built horizontally into the hills, each at a different elevation point than the other. The cars and motorcycles not only had to mind tyres skidding on the wet pitch rodad but also visibility; clouds flew in and out on a whim, the only things not slowed down by the thick traffic, time and again draping the surroundings in white or grey shrouds. 

The two fans cautiously navigated the traffic, taking turns past neighbourhoods and squares. They went past a small field, standing out as the only even patch of open land in the entire neighbourhood, whose earthy pitch had turned into a mangled pudding of mud and water due to the rain and winds. It was half covered by a particularly thick cloud, with the small goalpost on the far end barely visible from the road. This was the Salem Veng Ground, the place where Jeje Lalpekhlua began his career in football as an academy cadet in his early teens.

Around the fans, the thick swarm of cars sported stickers, banners and scarfs bearing the Aizawl FC emblem, as some gates and shop windows. The majority of the people on the street were dressed in red. 

The city of Aizawl is home to at least eight prominent football clubs, each with a dedicated fanbase of their own. Aizawl FC, Chanmari FC (current Mizoram Premier League champions), Chanmari West FC, Bethlehem BVT, Dinthar FC, Ramhlun North, Chhinga Veng and Zo United. Yet, on this day, not a single rival club's jersey or flag was visible in this city with an ever-diverse footballing heritage. On this day, Aizawl FC, a club usually thought to represent a fraction of the population of the city had become the heart and soul of the Mizoram capital, and by extension the entire state, its people and their identity. Everyone was for Aizawl FC, and Aizawl FC was playing for everyone.

***

The long lines of vehicles suppressed by the traffic got their final respite in a square directly below the stadium. Here, an army of Mizoram traffic police expertly guided the vehicles towards a large field serving as parking lot, and the fans towards the stadium's two main gates on foot.

The main gate was reserved for the fans who had a ticket to the big concrete stands, covering the west end of the pitch. The oher gate was for those with the cheap tickets, allowed to climb up to the slopes on the south-east side of the pitch and watch from there, or those who could stand beyond the fence on the east end.

The cheap seats. Photo: AIFF Media

Both the walkways to the gates were thick with fans who slowly made their way up the winding lanes. There were lines of fans waiting to gain admission outside both gates. Once past the gates they tiptoed across slippery mud towards the designated entry points to their sections. 

An hour before the match, the stadium was already mostly full. The clouds, which had blown over and rained on the pitch by fits and starts all morning, had finally cleared up a little, and the players were out for their pre-match warm up with some clouds aimlessly floating by the surrounding hills but leaving the stadium alone.

                  Father and son.

The Mohun Bagan fans had already taken their place in a small separate section at one end of the pitch. Their corner, draped in green and maroon banners, stared at a vast sea of red that slowly formed around them, as people piled into the stands, climbed up the slopes to get a good place to sit on sheets and newspapers, or rushed to the east end where the standing-only section had people pushing each other for a prime position by the fence. 

The songs began. The stadium's speakers played the Aizawl FC club anthem and thousands joined in, forming a solid chorus as the players walked in for a game that had fate-altering potential for the Indian football zeitgeist. 

Soon after kick off, as the cheers from the assembled throngs became louder with each pass and counter attack, the docile clouds sprang into life and quickly converged right on the football pitch.

***

From the back and top of the stands where the press box is, watching the became soon became a menace. The rain dripped from the holes in the tin shade above the box, and the cloud made it hard to see who had the ball.

"That was Brandon's pass," one said. "No, it was William," another interjected. The game went back and forth, with both sides eyeing an early goal.

Soon, a perfect ball from Sony Norde found Darryl Duffy running past two central defenders. He had the ball at the edge of the box and Aizawl keeper Albino Gomes was advancing helplessly trying to close off some of the wide open net in front of te Scotsman. Duffy, faced with the chance to score a goal that could seal the league title, let fly a low one rather straight, and it went on to hit a crouching Albino. The entire stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Soon on the other end Bayi Kamo got the ball at the edge of the Mohun Bagan penalty box, with two defenders blocking his path. He took a shot that went directly through the stoppers, but found Bagan keeper Debjit Majumder waiting for it.

A gritty battle of tackles and counters continued as the wide eyed audience hung onto every pass and move. Jayesh Rane's corner was headed wide by Kingsley. A cross from the left was played by Amnah towards Brandon whose shot hit the back of a Mohun Bagan defender. Prabir Das sent in a lethal cross from the right that saw a low header from Katsumi Yusa that went just beyond the crossbar. 

Mohun Bagan players were holding on but some of them were distraught by the conditions. It was hard for goalkeeper Debjit to see the ball at times and the match had even stopped at one point due to visibility issues. Still the players wanted to carry on because they weren't doing so bad. Both sides were creating chances, but the gritty contest remained goalless. As the last twenty minutes of the match approached, the tension in the arena started rising; a draw meant Mohun Bagan would go into the last round with a decided advantage.

Al Amnah made a fast run up the middle-left and earned a corner. Usually Aizawl FC put up Jayesh Rane for such set pieces, but this time the Syrian medio decided to take it himself. He took his position and concentrated on the congestion of players at the goalmouth, trying to make out the familiar faces as much as he could through the thick curtain of cloud. It was hard to see faces. But it didn't matter. The red jerseys starkly stood out from the darker green and maroon striped shirts. It was enough.

The right footed corner kick took a slight curve, cutting through the cloud as it floated towards the penalty box. Midway down the box it dipped, as multiple expectant heads rose up to meet it. Amnah saw the ball disappear behind the front line of leaping defenders. For a moment, the Aleppo-born world traveler was at a loss. Then he caught the glimpse through the jungle of shoulders and elbows of a young lad's bushy head hammer away at the ball. Within a split second, the white orb had impaled the net.

A roaring explosion of sheer joy exploded across the arena. Amnah saw his teammates rushing towards him with their arms raised. Eagerly his eyes searched for the man behind the header, and there he was with his hands stretched sideways; Zohmingliana Ralte, a defender with 8 years of top division experience playing for clubs around the country, lost in delirious joy after scoring his first goal in 2 years, the very first one for his hometown club Aizawl FC, overwhelmed by the prospect of a career defining moment of success, a place in the history books, a taste of immortality.

Waves of celebrations swept through the stands. Head coach Khalid Jamil ran across the sidelines to join in on the celebrations, but quickly composed himself, returned to his technical area and uttered a prayer with his eyes closed. Vindication was close. The humiliation of ouster from a club he had helped build up with his blood and sweat had left him in gloom, but out of that abyss rose an opportunity to build something bigger at anoter part of the country. He had an inkling that his spell at Aizawl FC could bring success, but no one including himself had imagined winning the league on his very first season there. Round by round, as the dream had gotten closer, he remained grounded, telling himself not to dream too much, asking his players to just focus on the day's work. The loss to Bengaluru FC at Kanteerava had been a blow, and it justified all his thoughts of heartbreak and the crushing of dreams at the last moment. Now, with this one goal, he was suddenly faced with a new reality. The dream was within reach. Rather than an aurora in the distance, it loooked palpable; impending, even. He ran the math and the strands of logic over and over in his head. Was this it? Could he dare to dream now?

When the final whistle rang out, Jamil turned and raised a finger to the bench, "One more," he said. "We need one more result. It's not done yet."

Steady till the end. Photo: AIFF Media

But the thousands in the stands defied such composure. They sang, danced as the players huddled up in the middle, embracing each other in a rare moment where they could slow down and savour the fruits of their season long labours. 

The lower tier crowd on the west side stand was pressing down on the barrier between them and the pitch, reaching out to touch their heroes. The players went up to the crowd and shook the waiting hands. Some fans from the east side had jumped the fence, and the police were having a hard time keeping them off the players. But nobody seemed to mind. The players freely mixed with the fans. Ashutosh Mehta even invited some fans with drums onto the pitch to lead the players and fans in a 'viking thunderclap.' Some of the fans were in tears. Others were jumping on the spot shoulder to shoulder. Again and again, the chants rose up. The match had been over for a while, but the moment of victory was still lingering, prolonged by the continuous celebrations of the fans on the stands.

The crowd didn't want to let the players go, and the players didn't complain. For the Mizo players, most of whom came out of the local leagues and didn't even have much of a chance to play at the national level until 3-4 years ago, this was a validation for their lives' work, for the collective journey Mizoram football had undertaken over the last decade to develop from the ground up. Aizawl FC's success was a victory for them all.

Everyone was for Aizawl FC, and Aizawl FC was playing for everyone.

Around the same time, in a mid-sized room, Khalid Jamil was speaking to the media in the post match presser. "I knew the weather was going to be like this," he remarked cheekily. "That's why I held practice yesterday when there was rain and cloud all over."

***

A band of Aizawl FC fans stood on both sides of the lane leading out through the gate. They were singing songs, dancing and chanting as the vehicles of people in attendance passed by, completely oblivious to the recurring bouts of rain. Minutes ago, they had given a thunderous applause to the Aizawl FC team bus as the players left the stadium. Now they were simply offering high fives to every passing car and motorcycle; one last burst of joy before they faced a literally uphill journey through steep, wet and slippery roads that led to the central part of the city.

A group of Mohun Bagan fans walked out, crestfallen, looking for the way towards the parking lot. The Aizawl FC fans greeted them with handshakes. There were smiles and group selfies, a throwback to previous season's Federation Cup final match in Guwahati. Only that day, Mohun Bagan were the victors. This time, Aizawl FC had finally got their long awaited glimpse of glory.

"You guys still have a chance," said an Aizawl FC fan. "No way, you'll get a draw against Lajong for sure," answered a Mohun Bagan fan. The brief congregation of footballing faiths ended as the Mohun Bagan fans went their way. 

The Aizawl fans continued their flag-waving, fist-bumping celebration as the vehicles went by. Soon the line of cars thinned out, and the sun started setting. It was time for them to go home too.

Reluctantly, they dragged their muddy shoes away from the arena that now stood still after witnessing a historic battle that everyone in attendance will remember and tell stories about for the rest of their lives. Even if Aizawl FC go on to win dozens of national level trophies, they will always remember the first big one that their heroes fought to secure on an ominous day in a battle against the oldest club in the country, fought among stormy winds, rain and clouds. They will remember the nervous moments of trial and error, the gripping tension as the match progressed, the saviour from Aleppo who created that historic goal and the unlikely hero in a local boy defender whose fabled header made the dreams of 1.1 million Mizoram residents come true.

As they walked out through the gates down the slopy road that offered a short journey towards a city preparing for an untimely night of festivities, they were asking each other about a bigger journey that everyone in Aizawl was facing, "Are you going to Shillong?"

 CLICK HERE TO READ PART TWO

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