They are calling it the Title Fight. For "the Championship". If it were a boxing bout, the referee wouldn't even let it happen. But when Aizawl FC, the smallest, least-resourced club in Indian football's top bracket, take on historic heavyweights Mohun Bagan with the I-League title on the line, to call this an uneven contest is simplification. It is restricting the football and the match to the mere field of play at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Mualpui.
No club from the Northeast has ever been in title contention for the country's top-flight professional football competition. The previous best was Royal Wahingdoh of Shillong's third-place finish in 2015. On Saturday, Aizawl FC will have behind them what few football clubs in India do: the weight of a people, a state and an entire region. Yes, the football will matter and quality will make its presence felt but regardless of result, the match tomorrow will resonate long and loud in the place where it is being played.
The air in Aizwal though, from the outside, feels light. It is sunny, springtime weather cleared by frequent showers. The town is going about its business in its chilled, non-frenetic pace with no overt display of anything, either emotion or giant posters with fervent exhortations to the team. Yet, beneath the most unhostile traffic melee, full of swaying two-wheelers on hairpin bends with riders' hair blowing in the cool breeze, a frenzy is building.
It is growing in a very Mizo way: non-intrusive, low-volume, inward, but gathering momentum every hour. Among conversations, in behind-the-scenes planning, around social media. The idea of football as a sport born from neighbourhood and community is being played out, it feels, in every neighbourhood and community in Aizawl and across Mizoram's district towns and villages.
Sumo taxis are going to be starting up all over the state, of villagers coming into the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Mualpui. Certainly, Aizawl FC's Laldanmawia Ralte's parents and brothers will travel from Sialhawk village (population 2,270), 200-odd km south of Aizawl, only 30km as the crow flies from the Burmese border. The family of Mizoram's biggest star, Jeje Lalpekhlua (much-whispered salary: Rs 80 lakh a year), will be there too at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium from Hnahthial (population 7,123).
Pu Hmingchunga, headmaster of the Government Maubawk High School and a member of the Aizawl FC board of governors, says, "We have 750 villages in Mizoram and no one is left out without a football club." In the highly competitive Mizoram Premier League, played between Aizawl neighbourhoods, Aizwal FC, it was chuckled, fell into a gap about team loyalties because they are a club without a specific locality behind them. This season though, AFC have become the mother ship, the North Star for every club in the state.
Zodingliani aka Zotei belongs to Salem Veng (which have their own MPL club) but is one of the 30-odd "hardcore" female Aizawl FC fans. "AFC is the first club I have supported and it is the club I always will," she says. She turned up two days in a row at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium with other fans to do "community work", that is, putting up the advertising hoardings and banners around the ground, well into the evening. As well as join in raucous singing which marked the backdrop of Mohun Bagan's first practice on Thursday. Which is always in the evenings, the fans believe, so that the visitors get less time to "rest" than AFC, who train in the mornings.
The sale of tickets on Monday went at Rs 100 a head, over and done in five minutes, but those who haven't got hold of any, are being advised to turn up at the match venue a few hours before the game and buy them off scalpers at twice or thrice the price. On Thursday, the Aizawl FC shop sold 200 jerseys, their largest number in a single day. Unlike conventional business practice, the club had marked the price down all merchandise by at least a hundred rupees the closer it got to the game. It was said Rs 30 "grounds tickets" will be sold on match day for people to wander around the stadium and stand behind the bamboo barricades on the empty eastern face of the ground. There's a "Letter to Jeje" circulating on WhatsApp groups, "subject: request to understand," being booed by his own people.
It says at the end, "the people of Mizoram don't hate you at all, in fact we admire you a lot" and adds a cheeky PS: "if you can score an own goal we would even be happier."
Of course this is going to be about the football and several scorelines are being tossed about. A 4-0 for coach Khalid Jamil's fortieth birthday on Friday belongs to the wickedly impossible but most Mizo optimistically refer to the required 2-0. The realistic say 1-0, the more rational believe Bagan are far too strong in their collection of overseas talent. Jamil, broody and reticent, tried to keep the narrative on an even keel in his 10-minute press conference with close to 50 reporters. "The boys will have to give everything but have to be in control. They are playing a good team, champions from before." As Aizawl FC practices ended, after cutting a birthday cake for Jamil, some support staff and players rode away on their motorbikes heading for home. The big-money outsiders from Mainland and Overseas piled into a hatchback for their guest house. This is Mizo football, everyone pulls together.
Or as Jamil from jaded, faded Mumbai football said of his experience, "Ek naya cheez dekha (I saw something new), everybody's involved." From top to bottom, owner to fans. Who before every home match, gather at the AFC president Robert Royte's house and pray together.
Mohun Bagan got into town only mid-day on Thursday and were greeted with a welcome banner hung out in front of their hotel in the busy downtown neighbourhood of Zarkawt. There was much graciousness in the air. Bagan have been careful not to be fussy visitors, unlike other visiting teams, and didn't demand AC buses (there are actually none in the city) to get them to the stadium. They have been to Aizawl before but never on such a momentous day. Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen said, "Aizawl has shown the door for all the north region's football. Earlier it was Manipur, now it is Mizoram. Many, many Mizo boys playing in all clubs, and unfortunately no one from Aizawl is in the national team, but in future I think many (Mizo) players will represent the country."
Lalnghinglova Hmar aka Tetea, secretary of the Mizoram Football Association, says he is "pleased" that "AFC is playing Mohun Bagan and not a new club in the title match. Because they are part of Indian football's history."
For two days now there were rumours of a Baganese travelling fan invasion of up to 500, but the truth is that only a 100 or so will turn up because it is the maximum seats they have been promised in a corner of the western terraces. A handful wandered around the Mualpui stadium, unhappy about the stand they were given, but admiring the view in their first visit to Aizawl. Abhik Ray, 38, software engineer who gave up his job with IBM in Bangalore to return to Ericsson in Kolkata to stay close to his beloved Bagan, finds the ground too broad but not long enough to help his team show off its full range of skill.
Not many had turned up last season, because air tickets are expensive, and frankly, the Aizawl-Bagan match hadn't been important enough. This time, while to a man they believe Bagan would pull through, their team needed their voice. Rajesh Chaudhary, 47, said he had heard about the Aizawl crowd, watched them on TV and found them "very passionate but more noisy than us also, I think." Saurav Mitra, 20, says, "We'll do it" and he's not talking about the Bagan fans making themselves heard.
Early on Friday, it rained loud and long in Aizawl, an angry growling of thunder, a howling, enraged wind, a blanket of clouds covering the town and rendering it invisible. At the Mualpui stadium, the banners put up by the fans late into Thursday night were broken and torn, only eight of 40 left reusable, the rest having to be put together again, from printing to installation. It was not a good omen. Headmaster Hmingchunga looked around at the scene and then dipped into the Bible. He was speaking of life in general but it would work fine in football. "Nothing," he said, "is impossible with God."
Aizawl FC have come this far on football and faith. Tomorrow, whatever the result, they will give thanks.