THE PEOPLE’S CLUB – AIZAWL FC
by Sammir Goyall
On 30th April 2017, Meghalaya based Aizawl FC created history by being the first ever North Eastern club to win the coveted I-League. The club, which was founded in 1984, took 28 years to achieve official certification from All India Football Federation and participated in I-League 2nd Division. In 2015, the club, under the mentorship of Indian coach Himingthana Zading, won its first two trophies by winning I-League 2nd division as well as Mizoram Premier League and got promoted to play in I-League 2015/16 season. The club have appointed Spanish coach Manuel Retamaro Fraile to replace the outgoing Indian coach and acquired foreign players like Alfred Jaryan and Emannuel Chigozie to compete in the league. However, the season didn’t end well and the club only won 4 out of 16 matches leading to Fraile being sacked and being replaced by then head of youth development Jahar Das. The club finished at 8th position and got relegated to 2nd division. However, the team did retained the title at Mizoram Premier League as well as were runners-up of Hero Federation cup
But, as being said ‘God Works in Mysterious Ways’, Goan clubs Salgaocar and Sporting Goa have pulled out of I-League, paving way for Aizawl to return to I-League owing to its brilliant performances last season in Federation Cup, especially defeating footballing giants Bengaluru FC in both legs, setting the wheels in motion for one of the biggest underdog stories in the history of Indian football. The club have witnessed a strong start in 2016/17 by reaching semifinals of Durand Cup as well as Mizoram Premier League but lost out against Army Green and Chanmari West in respective tournaments. Aizawl FC responded to these defeats by appointing ex-Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil as new head coach and reinstated caretaker manager Jahar Das as the club’s youth coach. The club, backed by Robert Boyte (Sports and Youth Services, Tourism and Information and Communication Technology Minister of Mizoram) of TT Boyte group, have signed Jamil’s trusted players Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rane along with Mumbai City’s goalkeeper Albino Gomes on loan as well as retained Alfred Jaryan and signed former Syria international Mahmoud Amnah as well as defender Kingsley Obumneme and forward Kamo Stephane Bayi. Aizawl Fc also brought back their former head coach Himingtha Zading and appointed him as team’s manager.
Khalid Jamil was being accussed of playing defensive style of football as well as resorting to wasting time antics whenever his team takes lead at Mumbai FC. However, he is looking to turn over a new leaf at Aizawl FC and have focused on getting his players to play free flowing football. According to him, “It is not about playing aggressive or defensive. One needs to change their game plan according to the situation and that is what we have done.” Jamil inherited a young squad filled with exciting local talent. Jamil’s focus on promoting young talent is being testament to the fact that 13 players out of total squad are aged less than 22.
The club have started their I-League campaign by a draw against champions East Bengal followed by 3 back to back victories including defeating their derby rivals Shillong Lajong in 2-1 at home. Even though the fans felt shocked betrayed about AIFF decision to bring back DSK Shivajians on account of corporate backed direct entry into the tournament, they backed Aizawl FC and supported the club whole heartedly by coming out in huge numbers in both home and away games, resulting Aizawl FC being dubbed as ‘The People’s Club’. The club also witnessed an unbeaten run for 7 matches including defeating East Bengal before being beaten by Bengaluru FC. On 30th April 2017, Aizawl FC made history at Shillong by winning the I-League 2016/17 in a 2-2 draw against Shillong Lajong. The club won 11 out of 18 matches with goal difference of +10, owing to 7 goals scored by Kamo Stephane Bayi. Bayi was club’s top scorer at I-League and have significantly contributed to this title victory.
From about to be relegated to being crowned as the I-League champions, Aizawl FC have registered itself in the history books as the classic I-League underdogs. Their journey will be cherished by football fans not only in India, but also at global stage drawing comparisons to English club Leicester City dream Premier League title victory which, coincidentally happened in the same year as Aizawl’s title victory. The 44 year old Khalid Jamil have proved his critics wrong and have ran the show from the sidelines at Aizawl FC and turned them from just another North Eastern Indian club to League champions. Khalid Jamil won the Syed Abdul Rahim Award for the Best Coach while Alfred Jaryan won the Best midfielder award at the end of the season. Aizawl FC, on the other hand, qualified to play in AFC Champions League qualifier resulting from I-League title victory.
However, 2017-18 saw Khalid Jamil moving to East Bengal for reportedly Rs. 1.25 Crore making one of the costliest acquisition made by a I-League club for a football manager. Aizawl FC, on the other hand, got eliminated in AFC Qualifier preliminary round by being defeated in 3-1 match against Zob Ahan. But, nevertheless, the club’s 2016-17 season will always be remembered as nothing short of a dream run and Aizawl FC is a clear example of the fact that ‘NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE’.