BACK IN 2017, Mizoram football was the talk of the town everywhere.
The state had seen a meteoric rise in the national football landscape. From Santosh Trophy, junior league triumphs, high number of Mizo players in the Indian national team to Aizawl FC's fairytale journey to become the I-League champions... people were in awe of this small state that had, seemingly out of nowhere, become the most happening footballing hub in the country.
Back then, in an exclusive interview with TFG, Mizoram Football Associations's honorary secretary Lalnghinglova Hmar, fondly called Mr Tetea Hmar by the people in Mizoram's football circuit, struck up a sobering tone about the reality of Mizoram football,
"The success of Aizawl FC has caught attention of the whole nation and its media, and they think Mizoram is a magic state. But it's not. In football, anything can happen, but that doesn't mean we are the best in the country. We have to stay humble and grounded. Winning the national league is not something that will happen every year. We obviously want to make it happen again and again, but for that we have to start from the grassroots and develop the sport from the junior level all the way up. Even then, success is not guaranteed."
What was going on back then was a constant battle, waged by the MFA and its numberous community-based clubs and academies, to develop and maintain a football system that lacked the big investments that states like West Bengal, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra etc enjoyed into their clubs, infrastructure and tournaments.
MPL was run on a low budget, many of the clubs went around the locality to raise donations to fund the team, and player wages were much lower than other top states in the country. The association was facing an long drawn-out battle trying to expand the state league to every corner of the state, develop infrastructure in districts and introducing modern coaching or refereeing education.
Three years later, on top of the ongoing issues, Mizoram faces a new set of challenges - the state league no longer enjoys the hype it once used to have, changes in state policies have made it harder to get sponsors from certain industries and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all official football activties to come to a standstill.
Speaking to TFG from his house in Aizawl, Mr Hmar, who is also a member of the AIFF Executive Committee, looked back on the last three years, how much progress Mizoram football had made and where things stood right now.
Asked whether the financial situation for clubs in general has improved since we last spoke, he had a frank answer,
"Not exactly. The problem in Mizoram is that we're getting zero multinational companies investing or sponsoring our football clubs and tournaments. Many of the clubs in the Mizoram Premier League run on the contributions made by local people. Other than Mizoram Police and Aizawl FC, most of them are based in specific localities and so it's the people who live in those localities who contribute towards the wages of the players, along with sponsorships by some of the local businessmen. It's very minimal."
Since the success of players from Mizoram in the national team, he noted, more and more clubs from other states were recruiting players from Mizoram which, while a great thing for the players themselves, caused an extra strain on the budgets of local clubs who had to go beyond their means to keep the good players to be competitive in the MPL,
"Many of our better players get offers from outside the state with much better wages. The local clubs have to compete with that and increase those players' salaries to keep them, and it takes a toll on them. Then if one player starts getting extra money, the next player asks for a raise too, and the budget keeps on increasing like that."
Asked what the solution may be, Mr Hmar said a complex situation like this needed a well thought out plan to resolve it,
"We're contemplating on organizing a study group to take a thorough look at the Mizoram football structure and consider if a salary cap can be introduced, at least in the MPL, so the clubs can have some measure of financial relief. It's not easy to enforce it, a lot of clubs also offer bonuses and other rewards to players, but perhaps at least we can regulate the actual salary bills and keep things competitve. It's a tough balancing act, for the players, the more they get, the better, but that's not the best thing for the clubs. We have to try to find a middle ground... the way football is played in Mizoram now is that you play eight to nine months a year. To be active as a player you have to take it as a full time profession, it can't be a part time job any more. So we are in a situation where if we say we're going to be like the Calcutta Football League and give the clubs a free hand in terms of financies, there will be a large gaps between the have's and the have not's. Kolkata football has been dominated by Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting for so long now... it could happen here in Mizoram too. This is a big problem, so we may have to sit down with the clubs and get a consensus on how to go about this."
Introducing a salary cap to keep the league competitive is an idea the MFA has contemplated for a while now, but some of the more financially secure clubs - especially those who play at the national level - are not in favour of such restrictions on their budgets. Mr Hmar explained,
"It's tough to put a salary cap on clubs like Aizawl FC and Mizoram Police. Aizawl FC are playing in the I-League, and if we force then into a situation where they have to field a different first team in MPL, that's not good for them. MPL used to be a testing ground for players, it would take place before national season started. Now that's not the case any more, so it gets more complicated... as things stand now, many clubs have to find wealthy patrons among local businessmen. They join the clubs' boards and help fund the teams. But many of them can't hang on forever. After a couple of seasons, they say it's too much expense and leave. Then the clubs have to look for somebody else to take their place. On the other hand, Mizoram Police ran a recruitment drive a couple of years back and almost all the players from Chhinga Venga FC, who were the champions back then, joined them. Including talented players like Malsawmfela. Because they can provide them with secure jobs."
The reason behind this vast difference of means between clubs in the same league, he explained, is that the MPL has not broken past a threshold of popularity that it needs to attract better corporate sponsorships across the board,
"It's a small market I'd say. Football is popular but not everybody watches it. And MPL is not the same as it was, we have to admit this. Because initially it was the in thing that everyone was following. It was the most happening event in the state. But now a lot of other things are also going on in Mizoram sport and people have started taking MPL for granted... the level of football, in my opinion, has been steadily improving from the first season onwards. It's up there with the best and we're still improving. Better coaches, more experience... we're attracting talent from outside Mizoram as well. But the financial struggle our clubs are going through makes the situation very difficult for an association. Players can be taken care of by the clubs, but we have to take care of the clubs. A lot of clubs in Mizoram are in a position where they end this season and still don't know where the money for the next season will come from. After every season they have to go back to square one, looking for sponsorships. Some of them get it, some of them don't. There lies the problem."
In 2012-13, when the first season of Mizoram Premier League took place, the lowest per-season wages for a player in the league could be as low as Rs 3000. Nowadays, the minimum salary has risen to around Rs 10,000; but the kind of money a player can make playing in MPL is still nowhere near what they can get even at a mid-table club in Calcutta Football League's top two tiers. He elaborated on the issue this created,
"It's a situation where two players who are almost equally good get vastly different salaries. One keeps playing local football for very little money, and the other goes to ISL and gets crores. To solve this giant gap, somehow, we have to bridge the two; the ISL clubs and the local clubs. We have to have a good structure where the clubs get their players. For example, right now players strart out at Chhinga Veng or some other club in MPL, then they get to play in I-League for Aizawl FC for one season, then they might get a big deal in a different club. Of course it's a great thing that these players are getting a lot of money but the clubs they played for in the past who nurtured them, they're not getting anything. So maybe, in the new system, the players' compensation will also help the smaller clubs."
Increasing viewership of MPL, too, is one of the bigger battles that the MFA must fight, according to Mr Hmar,
"I've been contacting not only our TV broadcasting partners Zonet but also people from outside the state... we have some contacts and we're also on the Sony Liv digital platform which looks good but again, the league itself is struggling to get the major sponsors. Last season, MPL was without a title sponsor. After we get the sponsorship, I believe we will be able to work on the publicity within the state. Nationally, it's on a digital platform now; we'll also look into how we can get more viewership from outside the state as well. It comes down to having individuals who are good at marketing to get us there... we were working on this this year itself, and we were close to striking a deal, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic we could not start the league on time, and this season at least up to December there will be no football in Mizoram. The pandemic is getting worse and worse, so I don't know whether we're going to take a sabbatical this season or not. But once things get back to something close to normal, we have to make sure we come back strong and we structure this whole thing better. It's always difficult, but we'll try our best."
Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced all competitions and developmental activities of Mizoram football to come to a halt. Mr Hmar said it was a necessary precaution to take,
"As a football association, we felt that we should not take a risk when it comes to players' health. Till December we're not holding any official football competitions, and the government isn't alloweing us to run any such events either. But hopefully next year will be a fresh start for us. In fact, we're going to have the U-13, U-15 and U-18 Y-Leagues for boys, plus U-14 and U-16 for the girls with AIFF. There are all in the pipeline. Plus, the government is building new stadiums in almost every corner of Mizoram now. This will take four or five years to complete, but at least they are in the process of starting this. And we're almost at the process of completing the work with the aritificial grass given to Mizoram Football Association by FIFA through AIFF. Due to the pandemic, the people from Netherlands, from Edel Grass, couldn't come to Mizoram but hopefully during the winter we'll be able to complete the project. We're also building a players' hostel, it will be a kind of a residential academy with all facilities. We can also have our state team staying and training there. It's all in the pipeline, but for the time being we are on pause because the pandemic is not allowing us to go forward at the moment."
Despite the COVID-19 caused deadlock, Mr Hmar sounded confident that the projects he With so many projects related to player and infrastructure development making progress away from the limelight, Mizoram football may be on the breaking through to the next level of quality and talent development that Mr Hmar and other MFA officials have been building up towards for years. Having good stadiums in every district will also help diversify the MPL; which has seen mostly clubs based in Aizawl dominate the competition so far.
Mr Hmar had also spoken about the need to introduce widespread coaching education three years earlier, and he said although progress had been made, there was still a long way to go,
"Coaching is one area where are are still lagging behind. We don't have enough coaches, we do conduct our local coaching education but that needs more work done on it. But now having said that, we have a new batch of young coaches in their 30s who are products of Mizoram Premier League. Some started out as players a few years ago, then retired and saw an opportunity in coaching, so they are getting the process of getting their C or B licenses. These are our new breed of coaches, who will be able to live up to the standards of our players. Because our players are playing with the best, they are playing for the country, also in ISL and I-League. So I used to challenge the coaches, saying your players are reaching the highest level and you're not even getting to the second tier. I mean we don't have coaches who work outside the state... honestly speaking in the past the coaches here didn't take it up as a career, unless they were employed by the sports departments in the government there was no scenario where they were earning good money through coaching. But now with the MPL, the academies and many junior clubs at least they are assured of having work for the whole year. The money may not be a lot but at least it's steady. So you see, one cannot do this as a hobby any more... we started out from an amateur stage and we're reaching a point where everyone has a steady income, players as well as coaches. Even the medicine, sports science, the kind of treatments players are getting with their health and recovery... those are also improving."
Another area where Mr Hmar stressed on the need for improvement was referees. Thanks to the MPL, local referees get a lot of experience, and he believed it needed to be combined with formal education so referees from Mizoram can gain more experience outside the state,
"A lot of our referees are just content at just working at the local level. Some of them are better than some of the referees we have at the ISL, to be honest. But they don't think about going outside. If they get comfortable where they are, of course they're going to struggle moving up in their career. We're actively looking for new referees who are educated and can speak English and we have seen a lot of enthusiastsic candidates... college and university students who are interested learning refereeing in an academic way through our courses and taking it up as a serious profession. But we have to go step by step with them, start from the basics and go from there... this is going to take time but it's making progress. People talk about our players, but no one talks about our referees because we don't have any big names at the national level, we'll have to change that."
What's more clear than ever, though, is that in the recent years Mizoram football has been undertaking a difficult endeavour to grow into a professional setup that has quality infrastructure and trained personnel working in every department from youth development to league management. And despite the numerous challenges, they have succeeded to an extent that the MFA, which still runs a tight ship from from its modest office next to City Park.
Asked if it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the increasing number of projects, Mr Hmar laughed and agreed,
"It does get difficult to run everything from a small office with with a staff of four or five. We are starting so many projects... we have the youth football projects, we are taking strides on women's football too. Then there's futsal and the new development projects. It takes up a lot of time. But one good thing is AIFF sends us officers to help with it. You know Samson Ramengmawia, who was with Shillong Lajong for a few years and later played for Mohammedan Sporting, he became a coach after retirement and got his B license. So he was appointed the state development officer and worked with us for two years. He helped us a lot with everything, because you know, there's lots of paperwork to be done, a ton of correspondence with the AIFF, setting up the centralised registration system apart from the day to day activities. So yeah it can get difficult sometimes but we have to tackle it. Because it's a passion. Some people may think it's a waste of time, money and energy but if it's a passion, it gives you pleasure, it gives you happiness. With that zeal, you continue to work."
If things go according to plans, he said, a number of new large scale projects will soon be announced, both in youth football and for seniors. But chances are it still won't change an opinion that's held strongly by every single person who works in or close to Mizoram football, that the state is still not anywhere near achieving its full potential in the sport.