“How can the reigning champions be relegated to second division? We will not accept it, no chance. We will be playing in the Asian competitions. How silly will it be if India’s champions are playing in Asia but, back home, they are not allowed to play in the main league?” This was what Aizawl’s owner, Robert Royte, had to say after a newly proposed system for Indian domestic football prevented Aizawl FC, the champions of India’s top division, the I-League, from defending their title in the first tier.
It has been a historical ride for one of India’s smallest clubs, gracing from arguably the country’s most passionate footballing region over the last few years. Born just over 30 years ago, they’ve been through hell and back and just last month, achieved international prominence, becoming Indian champions for the first time in their history.
Football in India has been going through some immense changes over the last few years, with the emergence of the Indian Super League, abbreviated as the ISL, being the core to its rise. The ISL is an eight-team league that runs daily fixtures between October to December before conducting a two-legged semi-final and eventually, the final. The tournament has been a massive success in India, with attendances being at a high and some legends of the sport taking part in it every year. Average attendances for matches exceed 25,000 visitors per season – a record that can only be topped by the Premier League and the Bundesliga and that has been down to the huge array of star names that arrive each year. Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Freddie Ljunberg and Zico are just some of the names who have been involved with the competition.
There have been criticisms of the league, with many feeling that its short duration is just to attract larger names and create a friendlier setting rather that improve the nature of football in the country, and at times, it does look that way. The other league, the I-League, which is the older tournament of the two and represents the country in AFC competitions, has taken a step back as a result of it. It does not have investment from the country’s most prominent celebrities, nor does it have an equal level of TV time and as a result of it, its teams can’t afford some of the more famous names that play in the ISL. Perhaps the only thing better here in the I-League is the fact that it does not have fireworks bursting which happens in the ISL, although that isn’t really much to celebrate.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) – the governing body for football in India has come up with a plan to curb the popularity gap, and create one league to represent the country in international competitions. This is a three-tier league, with its first division consisting of all ISL clubs and the I-League’s most prominent sides, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC. The prior two grace from Kolkata and create one of the most historic rivalries in the sport, while the latter are relatively new to the field, but have taken the footballing world by storm due to their excellent management off the pitch. The other two divisions would be filled mostly by clubs playing in the I-League currently as well as the current second division.
The whole situation obviously creates a major problem for India’s champions Aizawl FC, who have every right to feel robbed due to their incoherent history. They have had a fairytale run this season, however, as they sealed a historic title in the most impressive fashion. Traditionally, and statistically, they were supposed to be nowhere near this remarkable feat having been relegated last season. But, to their fortune, two other clubs pulled out of the country’s top division, and Aizawl were reinstated. They have ridden their luck ever since and have grasped the opportunity with both hands. Under the tutelage of 40-year-old manager Khalid Jamil, who was appointed at the start of the season, they have displayed an attractive brand of football and are tipped to perform really well in continental competition next season, in their very first attempt.
Their home record has been impeccable, winning eight out of their nine fixtures, drawing one, while all three of their losses came away from home, with the only major blip coming against relegated Mumbai FC. They also happened to get the better of some of the big boys, with Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan all suffering on their own grounds before Shillong Lajong, a club that’s geographically close to them, became the club that they drew against to win the title on the final matchday of the season. It has been the most brilliant story in Indian football’s domestic history – one that perfectly rewards their modest history.
The club was founded on Valentine’s Day 1984 by Benjamin Khiangte, a man with experience of foreign lands who wanted to bring his overseas football expertise to India. Mizoram, an area of high altitudes was where he was based and upon his arrival from Europe, he discovered that football was more of an activity that was only played while away from work than something professional. Disappointed by the state of football activities in the region, he launched a rebellion against the incompetent Mizoram Football Association, and it culminated in him forming Aizawl Football Club. Aizawl, the capital of the state, with a population of over 250,000 people, saw this as a fantastic opportunity to finally earn a professional status.
Khiangte was stern about his project and offered unthinkable incentives, both financially and non-financially. His care and thought went as far as providing his club sponsored shirts and efficient equipment for his players to use to the best of their needs. However, while he was succeeding with his objectives, his surroundings were failing him as the football association’s incompetence continued to grow and less than 15 years after its inception, Aizawl FC was buried into the ground.
It took until 2011 to revive the club, when Robert Royte, the chairman of TT Royte Group along with Hmingthana Zadeng, invested into the club to get them back on track with their main aim being to get a professional status as a football club. The club completed that goal a year later, and at the same time, they could benefit from a better footballing atmosphere as the Mizoram Premier League, an amateur state league consisting of teams in Mizoram kicked off.
Aizawl represented Mizoram in the second division, and instantly gained promotion in 2016, becoming the first club from the state to play in the I-League. They had a rocky season, but their performances showed that they belonged there. In a 10-team league where only the bottom club gets relegated, Aizawl managed a commendable ninth-placed finish but were relegated due to the bottom placed team DSK Shivajans being exempt from relegation for three years due to a corporate scheme with the AIFF. What’s worse is that Aizawl had beaten Shivajans twice that season and were a much more stable club both on and off the pitch.
In September that year however, Aizawl were reinstated back to the league due to the aforementioned reasons of two Goan clubs withdrawing from the league and the rest is history.
Aizawl have proven their worth to the I-League and Indian football’s followers, and it is an understatement to say that they deserve to play in the top division of Indian football. A merger between the I-League and the ISL seems unlikely for at least another two years, but Aizawl’s growing popularity and admirable use of domestic talent will be an asset to Indian football, no matter how much history or corporate success they possess.