Aizawl FC, a small-budget club from the hills of Mizoram, were only into their second season in India's top-tier league when they took part in the 2016-17 I-League season. Over the course of the campaign, the club would go on to captivate the entire nation by scripting an insane underdog story on the way to the title.
The People's Club lived up to their nickname and were the toast of the nation as they beat the likes of Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan to the title. Khalid Jamil and his motley gang of footballers had become stars and invited comparisons to Leicester City's fairytale title victory in the Premier League in 2015-16.
However, Aizawl's story unravelled in a similar fashion to Leicester's in the following seasons. Their title defence was in tatters even before it began and have not even remotely looked like the side that brought down some of India's best in 2016-17.
Of course, they were not helped by the fact that their biggest stars, including the manager, were all lured away by the clubs with big bucks. But strangely, most of them have failed to enjoy a campaign as successful as the 2016-17 one since.
Khalid Jamil, the manager, was enticed by East Bengal on a big-money contract. But he could not lead the Red and Golds to the I-League title and was embroiled in a spat with Subhash Bhowmick. Ultimately, he was sacked after one season and is currently out of a job.
Understandably, Jamil took with him several Aizawl FC stars to East Bengal, namely Mahmoud Al Amna, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Lalramchullova. They have all flattered to deceive since. Al Amna was one of the heartbeats of the Aizawl side. He went on to assume the same significance for East Bengal as well. But, frequent fitness issues and an inability to take charge of big matches means he has not the had the same impact in Kolkata as he would have hoped for.
All four are still at East Bengal but have put in underwhelming performances. Wingers Danmawia and Brandon had scored vital goals (three each) for Aizawl in 2016-17. However, they have flitted in and out of the first team at East Bengal. Chullova, the versatile full-back, too has not hit the heights he had shown he was capable of in Aizawl.
Goalkeeper Albino Gomes, who had a breakout season with the north-eastern side, made the jump to the Indian Super League (ISL) with Delhi Dynamos. However, the goalkeeper was sidelined by a season-curtailing injury in the last campaign. In the ongoing season, Spanish custodian Francisco Dorronsoro had been the preferred choice in goal until a need to field five foreigners saw Albino return to the starting XI.
Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rane, both trusted lieutenants of Khalid Jamil right from his Mumbai FC days, also played crucial roles in Aizawl's miraculous season. But their careers have not really taken off after that. Both went to ATK the next season and had a season to forget. Mehta was sidelined with injury and made just nine starts in a defence which was one of the worst in the league. Now, he has moved to Pune City who have been poor too.
Rane made 13 appearances for ATK and had zero assists and goals to show for. This season, though he has two assists to his name, Rane has largely played a bit-part role and only three of his nine appearances were starts.
Also making the jump to the ISL was Lalruatthara who switched to Kerala Blasters. Though he was named the Emerging Player of the Season in the 2017-18 campaign, Kerala did not have a good season as a team and did not qualify for the play-offs.
Nigerian defender Eze Kingsley and Ivorian forward Kamo Bayi (Aizawl's topscorer in the 2016-17 season) made the switch to Mohun Bagan but have struggled to make an impact. While Kingsley is still a part of the Mariners' team, Bayi was shipped out following a disappointing campaign and was last seen plying his trade with Tollygunge Agragami in the Calcutta Football League (CFL). He was seen playing local tournament around Kolkata, Sikkim or Assam.
It all throws light on a perplexing reality. The stars of what was the greatest underdog story Indian football had witnessed for a long, long time have all slipped into mediocrity, which is a bit of a shame. The worst of it is that the slump has come within one and a half seasons after scripting a terrific story.