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Aizawl FC, new I-League champs, face big future test after historic high

Aizawl FC, the newly-crowned I-League champions, will face bigger challenges ahead, especially as the team from North-East will represent India in the 2017 Asian Champions League qualifier

football Updated: May 01, 2017 09:16 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Aizawl FC,I-League,Aizawl FC vs Shillong Lajong FC
Aizawl FC players celebrate after they won the I-League title, following the 1-1 draw against Shillong Lajong FC in Shillong on Sunday.(PTI)

All those needing a reference point to understand the Aizawl FC story could look at Chapecoense, Monaco, RB Leipzig and Austria’s Rheindorf Altach. Each of these teams have challenged the dreary predictability of association football adding heft to the always riveting story of the underdog. (Match highlights)

Like with such stories, many, including this correspondent, thought Aizawl FC would falter at some point. But a team whose coach confessed to not knowing his players’ names before starting the 10th I-League went on and on and when Zohmingliana Ralte headed in a late goal against Mohun Bagan, the dream became palpably closer to reality. On Sunday in Shillong, it became reality.

So what now? They will represent India in the 2017 Asian Champions League qualifier and if they can’t make it to the elite competition, Aizawl FC play the AFC Cup next year.

“The North-east is a reservoir of talent and get this: Aizawl didn’t win it with the best players from Mizoram, this was probably the fourth or fifth rung of footballers. It tells you about the intrinsic football culture that has travelled east from Bengal. But one Jeje Lalpekhlua playing outside Mizoram is equal to four Aizawl players,” said Larsing Ming Sawyan, general secretary of Shillong Lajong, the first team from the North-east to play in the I-League’s top tier.

“And whichever way things pan out on Sunday, it will be a triumph for Mizoram. Either Jeje will win it for Mohun Bagan or there will be two Mizo players at Shillong Lajong who helped in that triumph. Else, Aizawl will be India champions,” said Sawyan.

Speaking over the phone from Shillong, Sawyan, who is also a vice-president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and president of the Meghalaya Football Association, said like any football club, one from the North-east has its sustainability linked to economics only that things are a little more microscopic in this region.

“Their biggest challenge will be to hold on to this team and then make some additions,” said Bhaichung Bhutia speaking over the phone from Gangtok. “Especially if they want to play seriously at the Asian level. That will need more money as it is possible some of these players would be approached by other clubs.”

That could be easier said than done given how lack of funds and the inability of the I-League to attract television money have led to clubs pulling out of the I-League. Shillong’s Royal Wahingdoh did that in 2015 months after finishing third.

Aizawl FC owner Robert Royte has been mum on future plans beyond saying he would like to build a team through youth development. That will be one Make in India initiative worth mentionable but will happen only in the long-term. So, how the immediate future pans out for one of football’s remarkable stories in 2016-17 could be as talked about as their successful run now is.

First Published: Apr 30, 2017 21:38 IST