AS THE I-LEAGUE season-opening encounter with Mohun Bagan entered the final third of the first half, Aizawl FC coach Manuel Retamero Fraile became restless in the sidelines. Things weren't quite taking shape as he would have wanted them to. His players were creating moments, but were failing to build momentum.
He was restless, as this was the first time Aizawl FC were losing on his watch.
By the time Retamero took over from Hmingthana Zadeng Aizawl FC, dubbed "The Peoples' Club" by their fans, were already undergoing an exciting phase in their history. They had just won the 2nd Division League to become the first ever club from Mizoram to gain entry to the highest competition in Indian football, the I-League. There was anticipation in the air and the renovation of the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium to upgrade it for I-League matches was in full swing. The Spanish coach's job was to see through this period of transformation and establish the club in the top division; at least as a mid-table power.
They started quite well. The Mizoram Premier League saw Aizawl FC claim the crown back from Chanmari FC - their local league and 2nd Division rivals - in an unbeaten campaign that culminated with a nervy 3-2 win in the final.
But the real test was always going to be the I-League, especially with a young squad like that. Only two players in the entire Aizawl FC squad have had prior experience of India's top division league; captain David Lalrinmuana (ONGC), Ronal Zothanzama (1 appearance for Shillong Lajong), and Liberian striker Alfred Jaryan (Mohammedan Sporting, Mumbai FC).
Apart from being the youngest team in the league, Aizawl FC are also the least experienced. Fraile brought in some experience in the form of Japanese duo Yuta Kinowaki (Midfielder, 2 years with Energetyk Gryfino and BFC Daugavpils) and the team's oldest player, 30 year old forward Atsushi Yonezawa, who was there when Royal Wahingdoh gained fromotion from the 2nd Division in 2013-14. But still, as they played Mohun Bagan, the lack of experience became apparent especially at the back. Faced with a vocal away crowd and lethal strikers like Cornell Glenn and Balwant Singh their defence was breached again and again. At half-time they were trailing 3-1, their first I-League goal coming courtesy a silly own goal by Pritam Kotal.
Nobody knows what Faile told them at the locker room during the break but when they re-emerged, they looked like men transformed. They knew where they were as far as the scorelines were concerned, so they played an open game with nothing to lose. The nervous lack of coordination was gone. The midfield was moving the ball around, using their pace against the experienced opponents who were looking a bit tired as the game wore on. Te likes of Lalbiakthanga, Zohmingmawia and David Lalrinmuana were practically running the game as Mohun Bagan got bodies behind the ball to defend their lead.
They dominated possession. Did most of the attacking in the second half. Chances were created too. And had Shilton Paul not pulled off a couple of timely saves things could have gotten a lot more interesting. But they did not manage to score and lost the game.
Hero I-League 2015-2016Mohun Bagan A.C. 3-1 Aizawl FCScorersMohun Bagan A.C. - Cornell Glen (5',21'), Balwant Singh(29")Aizawl FC - Pirtam Kotal (16' OG)
But it made for a fascinating contest. A young newly-promoted team, taking on the defending champions away from home on their very first game, going toe to toe with them rather than being bogged down by early goals. And at the end of their historic debut match, the 200-odd supporters who had travelled to see the game were full of cheers. The Peoples' Club had lost the points but succeeded in communicating that they were here to fight for their place in the nation's top division.
And who knows, with the home crowd behind them, and the advantage of the cold climate that most visiting teams will be unaccustomed to, they might produce a couple of shocks in the coming weeks.
Aizawl FC have the onus of facing the top two clubs from the previous season at the very start of their campaign. Against Mohun Bagan they won hearts and earned respects. Now when they face Bengaluru FC next Saturday - the first league game ever to be held on Mizoram's soil - they are bound to fight harder, backed by a loyal home crowd that has been there for them throughout their struggles in the MPL and the 2nd Division.
And if they can achieve a dignified outcome against these two clubs, the other clubs - especially those who had to fight tooth and nail to avoid relegation till the last matchweek in the previous season - will have an additional cause for worry.