“Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” These evergreen words said by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff is often quoted to decorate a romantic footballing story.
People love an underdog story. The previous decade was lucky to experience Leicester City in the Premier League 2015-16, Iceland in the 2016 Euros, Ajax in the 2016-17 Europa League and again in the 2018-19 Champions League, Croatia in the 2018 World Cup and so on.
Aizawl FC, a modest club from the hills in the northeast ensured that India had no shortage of a romantic footballing tale. On 30th April 2017, the author of this fairytale Khalid Jamil lifted the I-League trophy, surrounded by a committed group of low-profile players.
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A modest team with a modest budget stunned Bengal heavyweights East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and defending champions Bengaluru to be crowned unlikely champions.
One season ago, the club from Mizoram finished just one place above relegation immune DSK Shivajians and were heading towards second division football. However, with Goan clubs Dempo and Salgaocar pulling out of the I-League, AIFF provided Aizawl with a lifeline, a free pass to compete in the top division in the 2016-17 season.
Elsewhere, Khalid Jamil and Mumbai FC parted ways after six years. Aizawl signed Khalid and presented him with the objective of finishing in the top-five.
Khalid signed some of his Mumbai FC faithful to bolster his squad ahead of the new challenge. The likes of Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta and Albino Gomes took a pay-cut to be reunited with their former boss. Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna was yet another low-profile signing made by Khalid that turned out to be a masterstroke.
The “People’s club” scored just 24 goals that season, the least among teams to have finished in the top-six. However, incredible support at home proved key as Aizawl finished the season unbeaten at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium. The torrential rains, lack of marquee signings and a poor show from the previous season did not stop the fans from flocking the stadium in the hope that Khalid’s men would dare to do the implausible.
Aizawl drew one game and won eight at home that season. Five of those were 1-0 wins and none of them were won by more than two goals. This emphasised resilience and strong mentality over flamboyance as Aizawl proved almost impenetrable at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium.
The title was never guaranteed for Khalid’s men. They had to earn every bit of it week after week. Aizawl were tied with Mohun Bagan on points until the penultimate game of the season in which they faced each other on the hills.
A hard-earned 1-0 win over the giants meant that Aizawl had to avoid defeat against northeastern rivals Shillong Lajong in their final game to be crowned champions.
However, calamity struck in the 9th minute when Aser Dipanda opened the scoring for Shillong. The hosts managed to preserve the lead until the break as Aizawl were poised to see a sorry ending to their dream run.
But with 23 minutes left on the clock, young substitute William Lalnunfela scored from a goalkeeper mistake to provide his side with a breather, taking them ever so close to the title.
Aizawl managed to prevent the hosts from adding another and ensured that the game finished 1-1. Elsewhere, Mohun Bagan defeated Chennai City 2-1, finishing just one point behind the new champions who garnered 37 points in 18 games.
While it is tempting to dub this remarkable story as India’s very own Leicester moment, the success earned due to the hard work of the coach, players and staff deserves an identity of it’s own. Aizawl provided India with a fairytale story of its own. The People’s club lived up to their name as they became the first team from North-East India to win the I-League, doing so against all odds.