The Aizawl Football Club scripted history when they hoisted the national football championship trophy before thousands of cheering supporters on Sunday. Not only were they the first club from the North-east to win the national award, but they came to it as extraordinary underdogs who had risen to the top in their very first outing.
On the way to the finals, they had humbled the giants of Indian football --- Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan (once my favourite team) --- demonstrating not just formidable talent but also capacity to stay cool under pressure and keep plugging away, a characteristic of the stoic Mizos.
While the winners savoured the moment in Shillong, home to Lajong, the losing side, the celebrations at night in their own capital of Aizawl were muted, though much festivity was to follow when they returned.
I’m not surprised that a team from the North-east has won the national championship. I’m just surprised that it’s taken them so long. Just take a look at the national team: 10 of the roster are from Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Nagaland. The dominance of players from the South, Bengal, and the North is perhaps finally ending.
At the same time, I know why it’s taken so long. Some years ago, the teams didn’t have the equipment, the sponsors and support or even the grounds although they had the passion, energy and raw talent. That talent had to be honed; the energy and passion had to be channelised. Focus mattered: Nearly 60 players from the state play today in top clubs across the country; racist abuse in other parts of India has hurt but not deterred them or their fans.
Local tournaments such as the Mizoram Premier League with night matches in this football-and music-crazy state provided the space for the best to earn their spurs. Talent scouts from across the country fanned out to pick those who could win matches for top teams. The team’s owner came up with funds and a vision to win nationally. But best of all, the Aizawl Football Club found a good coach – and as anyone who knows even a little about the English Premier League or any international competition can tell, an inspiring, knowledgeable, tough coach is the key not just to doing well but winning consistently. For Aizawl Football Club it was Khalid Jamil, formerly with Mumbai FC, who came to a team that was on the verge of relegation last year and turned it around.
It is worth reflecting here on two interwoven parts of Mizoram’s history, which have directly and indirectly played a role in this fairytale.
Thirty years back it was a desperate, devastated, poor border state that had just come out of 20 years of bloodshed, fear, tension and violence, thanks to a pro-independence insurgency that rocked India. More than two-thirds of the small population had been displaced between 1967-to-1970 by a relentless central policy that forced them from their homes and villages and tossed them into new settlements.
The second is the peace agreement of 1986 between the state government, the Mizo National Front and New Delhi, has held. Unlike many other parts of the North-east, peace in Mizoram has given younger people opportunities to make their mark. The Centre has pitched in with funds and support.
In Shillong, after the victory, the Aizawl Football Club fans surprised and won hearts and minds by cleaning up their patch of the stadium. It’s all part of a process of daily, disciplined living that marks the stoic Mizos apart. I know of university professors who regularly sweep the street in front of their homes.
Swachh Bharat promoters and others would do well to emulate them – for the AFC has shown that it’s not what you eat or which god you worship, the quality of your clothes or the language you speak that matters. It’s who you are and what you do with the chances that life offers you. And any Indian who after Sunday’s match asks where Mizoram or Meghalaya is seriously qualifies as a moron.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The views expressed are personal