BY SHYLO MALSAWMTLUANGA
I can still vividly recall what happened on 28th October, 1998. My mother was crying constantly for the last few days and that morning was no different. My sisters were consoling her. I was trying to carve out some space inside my bag for the boots. I was the youngest among five children in a family that lived and dreamed sports. My brother had chosen Hockey (and went on to represent Mizoram Police) as his favourite but I was a football guy. Later that day, I would leave home to chase my dream. I would bid goodbye to Aizawl.
If you are reading this piece on a football website, I will assume that you have seen many photos and video clippings of Aizawl in the last few weeks to know how beautiful that small town is. To leave that place – sorry I am using a cliché here- was heart-breaking.
The journey was tiring. First a bus ride to Guwahati. Then reaching Howrah in an overcrowded train compartment. A local train to Jamshedpur to end it all with.
On 30th October, two 14-year old Mizo footballers would start practicing at the famous Tata Football Academy (TFA), knowing little that they would be requested to write about that day in 2017. That was the first time, someone from that state made it into mainstream Indian football. Exactly 18 years and 6 months after that day, Aizawl FC can become the champions of India. How is that for a fairytale?
If I look at the domestic football circuit now, I can see so many of my juniors being revered and celebrated in the industry. The picture was completely different in the first years of my career.
Remember, those were pre- Google Maps days. We were not very sure about where exactly Jamshedpur was. So, a coach from the Sports and Youth Services Department (Government of Mizoram) accompanied us and stayed at TFA for a few days to make us feel at home.
“Where are you from?” the question was being asked everywhere in the first couple of weeks. My batch-mates were curious, so were the seniors and coaches. “Mizoram,” I timidly said. “Where is that place?” someone asked. “Arre, you don’t know? It’s in the state of Nagaland. Football is very popular there, I have heard” another cadet chipped in before I could answer.
Starting from that point, putting Mizoram in the national football map has been very difficult and I am proud I have played a small role in that. Many avid followers of Indian football don't know that I was not alone when I came to TFA. Lalhmingsanga was my partner, even though, he was released after three months from the academy. When we were scouted in New Delhi while playing against SAIL Bokaro in the Subroto Cup, we didn’t have any idea that one match will change the course of our careers, and dare I say, make football an obsession in a whole state.
Aizawl FC is a club very close to my heart. I have been in constant touch with the management throughout the season. The manager of the club is an old friend and we used to play together in our early teenage. We are in constant touch, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. Most friendships in Mizoram grow around that black and white sphere.
Among the footballers, Zotea is the one I speak to most often. We used to meet a lot when my team faced Pune FC and DSK Shivajians where he was playing and the acquaintance has only grown with time. “I can’t even remember seeing the ball going into the net. I was just determined to get my head to the ball and that’s all what I can recall,” he told me after scoring that goal against Mohun Bagan. “You have become a celebrity, you will soon forget us,” I told him.
These newly-found stars will fight for the whole Mizo community on Sunday evening. They need one point and any team would want to have Khalid Jamil as their coach in such a scenario. He is a master of defensive tactics.
Sunday will be a big day for all of us. We have dreamt about this day for decades. This team is loved by all and you rarely see an Indian football team evoke such strong emotions even among neutrals.
Kolkata has given me so much love over the years. I have played 13 seasons in the three big clubs of the city. I had won the Calcutta Football League, Federation Cup, Super Cup and finished I-League runners-up in my only season with Mohun Bagan. This is the city where I have been living for almost 15 years and this is where my daughter goes to school now.But, sorry Mohun Bagan! I am rooting for the club from my homeland this weekend. I will not be able to attend the match in Shillong, since I am travelling with my team Southern Samity to play a second division I-League match in Hyderabad.
But we will all be following the match with rapt attention and pray for the success of our club. Please give your all for the 90 minutes and win the I-League, Aizawl FC. No one will be happier than your well-wisher Shylo Malsawmtluanga.