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Aizawl FC, Khalid Jamil and the making of I-League’s greatest underdog story

Aizawl FC head coach Khalid Jamil is scripting one of Indian football’s most remarkable stories, with the I-League title now just a point away ahead of the club’s season-ending clash against Shillong Lajong

football Updated: Apr 29, 2017 18:11 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Aizawl FC,Khalid Jamil,I-League
Aizawl FC have been able to cope with the pressure of being I-league front-runners quite well through the season, and their unbeaten run at home (eight wins and a draw) speaks volumes of the technical and tactical brilliance of the outfit from Mizoram, coached by Khalid Jamil.(AIFF)

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

American commentator Al Michaels’ famous quote, when USA stunned the sporting world by beating overwhelming favourites Soviet Union 4-3 in the ice hockey final at the 1980 Winter Olympics, remains one of the most celebrated commentary lines in sports history.

USA’s famous win at Lake Placid coincided with the start of a tectonic shift in Cold War dynamics, and world politics.

In a much smaller magnitude and of lesser political significance, Al Michaels’ words would aptly describe Aizawl FC’s I-League title run if they manage to avoid defeat againstShillong Lajong on Sunday and become the new champions of India.

Aizawl FC head coach Khalid Jamil, known for his physically aggressive approach, focused on building a strong offensive unit after joining the club before the start of this I-League season. He brought in his proteges, Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rane from Mumbai FC, and signed Kamo Stephane Bayi, Mahmoud Al Amna and Kingsley Eze from abroad. He strengthened the back by signing former Shillong Lajong and Pune FC defender Zohmingliana Ralte and goalkeeper Albino Gomes. ( AIFF )

Aizawl’s title charge has been nothing short of spectacular, not because of the widely-held notion that they have one of the weakest squads in the league. As their superbly-organised outings have demonstrated, they have one of the most well-balanced teams this season.

What has, however, been truly remarkable is the manner and the matter of time in which this club has upset the status quo in the upper echelons of Indian football.

Miracle man Khalid Jamil

“Had never imagined (that we would come this far),” Aizawl FC head coach Khalid Jamil tells Hindustan Times.

Jamil’s story, itself, makes for an interesting read. Last season, he was discarded by Mumbai FC from his role as head coach after serving seven seasons at the helm of the club.

Jamil had, during his tenure in Mumbai, saved the club from relegation on multiple occasions, despite it being pegged back by chronic under-investment. As fate would have it, Mumbai FC have already been relegated in their first season after Jamil’s departure.

“I can’t say they made mistakes this season. I haven’t been able to follow them too often. They have a good team, but that’s how uncertain football is unfortunately. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in a period of time,” he says about his former club.

Like Mumbai FC this season, Aizawl FC were staring down the barrel last year. They finished above the sole relegation spot, but were relegated as bottom-placed DSK Shivajians had a three-year relegation immunity.

After the joint-pullout of the Goan clubs ahead of this season, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had no choice but to reinstate the Northeastern outfit into the top-flight.

When Jamil took over the club’s reins, he had little time on his hands to prepare for the new campaign. While overturning Aizawl FC’s fortunes was going to be a big challenge, he had to first deal with what he describes as a ‘life-changing’ career move.

“To move to a new place is always a big challenge. It was quite challenging for me (moving from Mumbai to Aizawl) as well. I personally needed some change in my life at that point.

“My family had come with me to Aizawl initially, but they had to go back once my kids’ schools resumed. I have been living here alone since then,” he elaborates.

With the I-League round the corner,his first job was to strengthen the squad.

“When I first arrived, I realised we needed reinforcements for a few positions. We were a bit short in the right back position, in attacking midfield. We also needed one more striker and a goalkeeper,” he says.

One game at a time

Aizawl FC’s player recruitments over the winter turned out to be very shrewd. Among them were former Mumbai FC players Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rane, Jamil’s own proteges.

Kamo Stephane Bayi, Mahmoud Al Amna and Kingsley Eze were the three overseas additions, while other key signings included former Shillong Lajong and Pune FC defender Zohmingliana Ralte and goalkeeper Albino Gomes.

Known for his physically aggressive approach, Jamil also focused on building a strong offensive unit.

“Our aim was to take one game at a time and then see how far we go,” he explains.

They have come far, Khalid Jamil’s men.

All his signings have been magnificent on the field this term. While the likes of East Bengal and Bengaluru FC have crumbled under pressure, Aizawl FC have been the most consistent side, backed by an imperious home run that has seen them win eight and draw one of the nine games they have hosted.

As their 1-0 win over Mohun Bagan last weekend revealed, this is much more mature side than the one from last season.

Khalid Jamil reserves special praise for the local Mizo players in the team. “The local boys are extremely hard-working. They will give their 100 percent at any time, be it in training or in the actual match. They have been there whenever I have needed them,” he says.

The Mizoram experience has been a fascinating one, and he admits being won over by the kind of fan support. “It’s different here,” he says.

“The owners are a bit different in their approach. The fans here understand football. At this club, I have been given a free hand. There is no interference from anyone. That is the biggest plus point,” he states.

Aizawl FC’s top-flight fate, even if they win the I-League title, hangs in the balance at present. With the AIFF planning to give top-flight status to the IMG-Reliance-run Indian Super League (ISL), Aizawl and most of their I-League counterparts could be pushed to the second tier.

Jamil , however, is not willing to shift his focus away from Sunday’s clash against Lajong.

“I am not thinking about it at all right now. The focus is on the next game. But I have faith that whatever decision they eventually make will be the right one,” he concludes.

What happens with the I-League after this season remains to be seen. However, irrespective of what holds next, the Aizawl FC story is a glowing endorsement of a competition that has been hampered by an administrative insouciance characteristic of Indian football.

First Published: Apr 29, 2017 13:29 IST