If you are a football fan, then it is safe to assume that you are familiar with Leicester City’s place in the history of the game. How the Midlands team went from being relegation candidates to Premier League champions in the 2015-16 season is the stuff that legends are made of.
But, what may have eluded many people’s attention is that a somewhat similar story is slowly taking shape in the I-League this season and Mizoram’s Aizwal FC is at the centre of this fascinating fairytale.
Aizawl FC is currently in the lead with 29 points and are well on their way to an epic title win. They have been an absolute revelation this season and with impressive wins over East Bengal and Shillong Lajong, they have proved their mettle against big clubs in the competition. However, seven months ago, the situation was completely different for the Mizoram-based club.
At the end of last season, Aizwal FC were relegated from the I-League in spite of finishing one place above bottom-placed DSK Shivajians. The Pune-based side had relegation immunity due to their corporate-backed dtrect entry into the tournament. It was a huge shock for the football loving people of Mizoram who felt betrayed by this All India Football Federation (AIFF) rule.
However, that was not the case as Aizawl produced a brilliant performance to beat I-League champions Bengaluru FC twice in the Federation Cup over two legs and reached the final of the competition for the first time in their history. The impressive show by Aizawl FC caught the eye of the administration and at the start of the 2016-17 season, were reinstated in the I-league by the AIFF.
A lot of experts called Aizwal FC’s return to the I-League a ‘stroke of luck’, but the story after that is nothing short of inspirational. The side secured the services of former Mumbai FC head coach Khalid Jamil and that turned out to be a pivotal point in their season.
The Kuwait-born Indian footballer was at the helm of Mumbai FC for eight years and he was a huge reason behind their constant presence in the I-League. But, the shift was not difficult for Jamil who settled quickly in his new role.
“It was not tough for me to go accustomed in Aizawl and once I found out about the huge support behind the club, it served as an extra motivation”, Jamil told HT.
Over the years, Jamil was accused of playing defensive football and resorting to time wasting antics when his team is in the lead. However, there have been no such complaints this season as Aizawl FC has played a beautiful brand of free-flowing football and although their goalscoring record has not been off the charts, they have consistently achieved the desired results.
Talking about their playing style, Jamil said, “It is not about playing aggressive or defensive. One needs to change their game plan according to the situation and that is what we have done.”
The 39-year old inherited a side which is filled with exciting local players, but he also added four new players to his squad at the start of the season. Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta followed him from Mumbai to Aizawl and he also signed the experienced foreign duo of Mahmoud Al-Amenah and Alfred Jaryan. The new players provided a lot of strength to the young squad (13 of their players are aged 22 or under) and the results speak for themselves.
“It has been a great experience for me to play alongside these talented footballers and we have gelled really well as a team. In my opinion, we have played effective football in all our matches this season and that has been the main reason behind our success.”, Jayesh told HT.
With just five games remaining in the season, Aizwal FC are agonisingly close to scripting a perfect end to their fairytale and like Leicester City, this is also a story for the ages.