THE TICKETS HAVE completely sold out. The local papers are dedicating full pages about this. The VIPs are filling up the list of attendees. People are flying in from all over the country to be part of the occasion.
No, it's not a major cup final we're talking about. It's not even some big-money ISL match. The event in question stands out on footballing merit, and the historical context.
For the first time, a top division professional football match is being held in Mizoram. Tomorrow, the picturesque and jam-packed Rajiv Gandhi Stadium will see newly-promoted Aizawl FC take on Bengaluru FC, one of the biggest powers in the I-League.
The organizers have left no stone unturned to make the event a success. Aizawl's public transport is nothing to boast about, but special buses have been arranged to ensure fans can travel to the stadium with ease. The stadium will have a few contests for spectators, and music to keep them entertained. The arena itself has undergone a major upgrade in the recent months to be ready for the I-League.
But a couple of oversights stuck out. The training time faux-pax that happened earlier today is bound to leave an unsavoury taste in the mouth of the home team and Manuel Retamero Fraile, its head coach. The club have to face two of the most powerful teams in the league at the very outset and given their achievement for Mizoram football, did not deserve such disruptions ahead of their big day.
The second oversight comes from the broadcasters Ten Sports Network, who have chosen not to broadcast this encounter despite its mass appeal and historical significance. But there is some consolation for Mizoram's sports lovers as All India Radio will showcase the match live to their listeners.
But coming down to the contest on the pitch, there is no doubt that Bengaluru FC are coming in as favourites. They faced a resolute Salgaocar in the season opener away from home and came out on top. C.K. Vineeth put up a good show, scoring the first goal, and Sunil Chhetri continued with the goal-scoring form he found during the SAFF Championship by netting the winner.
But a bigger takeaway from the game was the way the team's midfield had retained its solidarity. The likes of Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Thoi Singh put up a good show and there was a solidity about the way the team carried itself. They did not get discouraged when Salgaocar drew even, kept at it with regular attacks and finished the job. At first glance, it seems like tomorrow 3 points will be there for their taking.
Aizawl FC, on the other hand, suffered a 3-1 defeat to defending champions Mohun Bagan in their first game. The Kolkata club had found the net thrice in the first 30 minutes and the only goal to Aizawl's name came from an own goal by Bagan defender Pritam Kotal.
But what happened in the second half gives hope to the MPL champions' fans, and adds some suspense over tomorrow's encounter. Throughout the second half, Aizawl FC players, especially midfielders like Yuta Kinowaki and Albert Zohmingmawia, kept a firm control over proceedings. They dominated possession and put together a few lethal attacks that either went wide or got saved by an alert Shilton Paul. But had even one of them gone in, the game could have gone in a whole new direction. And most of this happened when their captain and most experienced Indian player, David Lalrimuana, had not even been brought on.
That talent, pace and zeal in this young Aizawl FC squad is what makes this game look more than a 'Bengaluru attack vs Aizawl defence' affair. Speaking to TFG, this is what Fraile pointed out, and added,
"We have an extra motivation this time; the people of Aizawl who will be backing us."
And that, in the end, is the big X factor in tomorrow's match. Because whatever the larger target for a club might be in the league, this game is an event in itself. And it's not about Bengaluru FC, not even about Aizawl FC. It's about the people of Mizoram, who have long held a love for the game and have done more than their fair share to develop the sport in the grassroots and produce quality players for the I-League, ISL and national team, are finally going to have themselves represented in the country's highest league. This match is Mizoram's coming-out party in Indian football's professional circuit. And no matter how the on-field contest turns out, the fans can be sure of being treated to something special.