Shillong vs Aizawl: Forget north-east unity, Sunday is 'judgement day'

Robert Royte, owner of Aizawl FC, has gone Biblical and called his team's I-League championship decider against Shillong Lajong Judgement Day.

Larsing Ming Sawyan, owner of Shillong Lajong, has billed the game as "North-east versus Aizawl".

If anyone, including the AIFF's anti-corruption officers, believes that Lajong and Aizawl will treat Sunday's match as a friendly, they should probably turn into flies hovering over the offices of both teams.

At the Aizawl FC office, down a narrow, curving rutted lane in Dawrpui filled on both sides with vegetable vendors, butchers, fishmongers and tailors, no one doffs respectful hats at Lajong. So what if it is the older, more established club and the first beacon for the region's footballers. "Yes, they are the older club, the bigger club, they have played the I-League longer than we have, but they have not reached where Aizawl have," says a young AFC staffer. "We are going to take away their pride."

At the Lajong office in Shillong's Centre Point hotel, a cool air-conditioned haven amid the chaos of Police Bazar, the staff smile sweetly when asked what is going to happen on Sunday. "We are going to break a few hearts on Sunday."

The clubs have become staging posts in the odyssey that is north-east football. Shillong Lajong, a club formed in 1983, were turned into a modern footballing entity in 2007 and made their I-League debut in 2009, the first club from the north-east in the top flight. Aizawl were formed in 1984 and now, in their second I-League first division season, are within touching distance of winning the title -- the first north-east club to do so. Lajong want to be a nursery for regional footballers, Aizawl want to prove how big money doesn't necessarily win big prizes.

The I-League rivalry between the two teams started in February 2016 with a 0-0 draw in Aizawl. In their next match, in Shillong that April, Aizawl opened the scoring but lost 1-3. This season a very different Aizawl travel to Shillong, having beaten them 2-1 at home.

In 2016, Aizawl had fielded a majority of Mizo players but this time have blended a mix of outstation talents into their eleven. Lajong have stuck to their formula of fielding young regional signings along with an average age of around 21. There happen to be six Mizo players in the Lajong squad and Royte says that, while relations between the two sides have been "very cordial", it must be remembered that "Mizo players have helped Lajong a lot and vice-versa."

Larsing's is a smoother version of events. "For Lajong the biggest challenge has been to integrate the diverse spirit of the north-east into one common fold. For us this match is the north-east versus a team from Aizawl." He goes on to say: "In fact we will be even more brash and say we will probably have two young Mizo boys, probably playing for Lajong on Sunday, who will be bright superstars of Mizoram... The future of Mizoram lies more with Lajong than with Aizawl FC as far as the players are concerned."

The two he is referring to are forward Samuel Lalmuanpuia and midfielder Issac Vanmalsawma, who, he says, will play "at the highest level for another decade ... So in that sense Mizoram is going to win either way."

Except on the league table, please. Former Lajong player Jeremy Wallang, now an adviser to the club, says, "As a football fan and a north-easterner, I would love Aizawl to win the title, but that can't happen at our expense."

It is estimated that there are more than 1,000 Mizos living in Shillong and it shouldn't surprise any if all turn up at the Polo Grounds stadium, along with the 200-300 travelling fans.

Sunday's match is not merely big brother versus little brother: the two towns are separated by 400kms and a 12-hour road trip. The Khasis of Shillong and Mizos from Aizwal could debate cultural superiorities till Indian football sorts itself out.

In a heady twist, Larsing happens to be half-Khasi (father) and half-Mizo (mother) but says there's no debate in the house about the match. "My mother is more passionate about Lajong than anything else. She will probably be the biggest supporter in the house." He makes it clear: "Let it be a team from Mizoram or from Shillong or anywhere else, her DNA [wants] to always win every match that Lajong play."

There is a little bit more needle in the contest for reasons beyond football. Shillong is the cultural and educational capital of the north-east, home to a great music tradition of Indian indie rock and fine academic institutions; it shelters poets, writers, scholars, painters and artists of varied aspirations. At any time, a cross-cultural mélange of people is seen clambering into the crowded camaraderie of its six-passengers-easy Maruti 800 taxis. Shillong functions on a more charged frequency than Aizawl, which is considered a faraway backwater full of melodious choir-singing country cousins. Who weren't too bad at football.

Then came the 2017 I-League season and the situation where Indian football finds itself. For the Aizawl fan, it is time for Mizo payback for every slight, real or imagined, from the supercilious Shillongers, and a chance to show that when it comes to football, it is the Mizo who move to a better beat.

The club has been methodical in its mission, having arrived at "Judgement Day". Sunday's match has assumed larger dimensions than you imagine for Royte and Aizawl FC, more than about proving a point to Lajong or even the north-eastern region alone.

It is a point to be proved to Indian football, which will have to answer troubling questions.