Four months ago, just before they would begin their I-League campaign, Aizawl FC confronted a fundamental challenge. The young Mizo players were talented but inexperienced and needed a seasoned hand to add steel to the team. The trouble was, not many internationals were willing to travel to a club on the eastern end of India. The club wanted Mahmoud Amnah, the former Syrian international midfielder, but weren't having much luck. The club's owner, Robert Royte, turned to his newly-appointed coach Khalid Jamil, who'd spent his childhood in Kuwait. "He spoke to Amnah over the phone in Arabic in my presence. He told him directly that Aizawl isn't a high budget club so we couldn't afford to pay him as much. And he was able to convince him over one phone call to come to Aizawl," Royte told ESPN.
The landing of Amnah was a massive scoop for the tiny club. It is one that would be instrumental to Aizawl's run -- among the most remarkable in contemporary Indian football. It is a success story of a club that wasn't even supposed to be playing this season, one that operates on a budget which is among the lowest in the league, and is now only a draw away from becoming champions of India. It is a fairytale that is impossible to separate from an equally remarkable story of the team coach Khalid -- at 40, the youngest I-League coach this season. "The coach has been amongst the biggest reasons for our success. It is a blessing from the almighty. At the right time, we met each other," says Royte.
All of Khalid's career -- as a child who grew up in Kuwait, then as a player and then as a coach -- it seems has been building up to Sunday. When Aizawl travel to Shillong Lajong, with Khalid tantalisingly close to achieving what anyone would have thought improbable upon his appointment at the start of the year. Recognition of this team's progress requires the context of the situation Khalid came from and the team he subsequently inherited.
There hasn't been a silver bullet behind Khalid's success, or a single moment where the penny dropped and his genius was accepted. Life in India's domestic football circuit isn't so simple. It isn't just a coach's strategic abilities that matters, but his ability to manage often meagre finances, unreliable owners and consequently jumpy players.
Nearly everyone who has played with Khalid or worked under him as a coach will swear by those softer skills. "I would say his best asset is his individual man management. We would share a room on tours and we would constantly discuss tactical changes we might need to make and how to motivate individual players. He would take a player and speak to him in confidence. We would also talk to players about how they could transform the lives of their families through football. We would tell them that you must play for yourself and for your family, and the team will benefit in the process," says Henry Picardo, who was an assistant manager to Khalid at Mumbai FC.
"He knows how to treat a player. Other coaches only talk in a tactical way. Khalid bhai (brother) knows how a player is feeling. That's because he has been a player very recently," says Steven Dias, who played alongside Khalid in Mahindra United. "I know him more as a captain than a coach. He had a knack for keeping players motivated. He knew how to keep that team together. The way he used to lead, I knew that if he was going to be a coach, he would do very well," says Dias, who subsequently played under Khalid when the latter took over as coach for Mumbai FC.
Khalid would maintain his reputation as a players' coach in Mumbai FC, which he joined a decade ago. The team was in a constant battle to avoid relegation and each year they would just about manage to stay afloat. Some say he'd overachieved by just keeping the low-budget club in the top division. Others argued that under him the team wasn't ambitious enough and were eager to conclude that his seven years in charge were a 'failure'. Yet the players remember how he would do his best, during what was clearly a stressful stint, to never let them be affected. "When a team is in a bad situation, he would never blame others. He will tell others after we lost, he would tell 'it is my fault, don't worry about it. Focus on the next match.' Whatever decision he took, he would take the responsibility," recalls Dias.
"Last year when we were fighting relegation, he went out of his way and asked the management for a bonus. And he has done the same in Aizawl. The players work harder when they feel they are wanted," says Jayesh Rane, who played under Khalid at Mumbai and subsequently followed him to Aizawl. "A lot of coaches will simply expect you to perform once you are being paid. Khalid bhai wouldn't do that. He wouldn't put pressure on you but keep trying to motivate you. And because of that you always want to do well for him," says Rane. While he may have been a favourite among the players, Khalid would be unwelcome amongst the Mumbai FC management, who sacked him after seven years in charge of the senior team.
It was a shift Khalid was not expecting to make. He had few intentions of ever leaving the city. Khalid, according to Picardo, was a man of simple needs. "There are three things that he focuses on -- first, his family. He's an out-and-out family man, and they are his first priority. Next comes football, and the third thing is his prayer," says Picardo, whom Khalid replaced as a right-back at Air India in the first National Football League in 1996. The move to Aizawl all the way across the country would separate Khalid from what he held dearest. "It was a shock to us to learn that Khalid bhai was going to Aizawl. He had so many opportunities to leave in the past but never did because he was a complete Mumbai guy. It was unimaginable that he was leaving the city," says Dias.
Khalid himself says he did so because he had little option. "After leaving Mumbai FC, I was desperate for a job," says Khalid, who was also in talks with Minerva FC before eventually signing with Aizawl.
Not that it was easy. "Kuch paane ke liye kuch khona bhi padta hai (To achieve something, you have to sacrifice something)," Khalid would say at one press conference. "I was scared because I had to do well. But there was nothing familiar to me. I didn't know the players, I didn't know the city. Playing out of my comfort zone was tough. And Aizawl was completely outside my comfort zone," he says.
While Aizawl had not been Khalid's first option, he had been theirs. Their first I-League season had been a disappointment. Their young, untested players suffered stage-fright and consequently, were bundled out of the league. Manuel Retamero, who had previously coached Real Valladolid B, had been sacked after six games and his successor Jahar Das had been dismissed at the end of the season.
Royte says he had his sights set on Khalid for a while. "Once we knew he had been shown the door, we were looking for him. Aizawl FC is very new in the I-League. In the last season, because of the inexperience of the team we were relegated. I thought we should recruit a coach who is experienced in the I-League. Not just overall. I had followed all the footballing coaches from the I-League and their style and tactics. I was convinced we had to rope in someone who was experienced, cool and patient," he says.
As in Mumbai FC, Khalid was expected to make do with less. In Mumbai, he and Picardo had managed this by investing in young players. "Mumbai FC had a budget of about Rs 2 to 2.5 crores, and in that money you really can't go out and buy stars. We searched around a lot and we got a lot of homegrown talent. We would travel and see these young players and bring them in. Players like Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta and Rahul Bheke [now with East Bengal] are the best examples of the products of our Under-16 system. We promoted them straight to the senior team, because we knew they would come good. We wouldn't have to pay them a lot of money, and whatever we saved we could use to buy a star player and pay him a little extra," says Picardo.
Indeed in Aizawl too, Khalid has invested in homegrown talent. In his squad of 30, he has only seven players from outside the state. The two Mumbai-based players -- Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta -- were brought by Khalid to Aizawl and have been instrumental this season, but the focus has been on the Mizo players such as Zohmingliana Ralte, Lalmuankima and youngster Brandon Vanlalremdika. But just as at Mumbai, Khalid also made sure to get the best international players he could. Amnah, who has been a key fixture in the attacking midfielder position, was one such hire. Khalid managed the difficult task of convincing the Syrian international to play for a tiny club in the corner of the country.
Khalid's positioning play has been inspired, too. Jayesh Rane, who played as a winger in Mumbai, now plays down the centre of midfield alongside Alfred Jaryan, who had played as a forward for Aizawl the previous season. The makeshift midfield duo alongside Amnah have been vital to Aizawl's success.
Khalid himself says he hasn't done anything he didn't do at Mumbai. "It isn't as if I have changed my strategy. It is just that it has clicked over here," he says. And nowhere has it shown better than in the ability of Aizawl to grind out matches. Nearly three quarters of Aizawl's goals have come in the second half of the match, including the winner against Bagan last Saturday. Three matches have been decided through winners after the 85th-minute mark.
As Aizawl have kept winning, a different sort of pressure has grown on the players. "It is a strange feeling to know we are so close to winning the I-League. I've never experienced anything like it," says Brandon Vanlalremdika. Here, once again, Khalid has done his part in keeping emotions in check. "He knows we are under stress so he will make sure we are having fun. He will joke about me and ask me how many girlfriends I have," says Brandon.
And when he had to, Khalid would turn to prayer. During the half-time break against Bagan, Royte says he went down to the team dressing room, where after giving pointers for the second half, Khalid asked the team to hold hands. "And then for a minute we said an individual prayer. We were Muslims and Hindus and Christians and even some who don't believe and we were all praying for the team," says Royte.
The nerves will only have to hold for a few days more. Khalid, for his part, is far more relaxed than he was only a few months ago when he arrived in Aizawl. "At first I was worried. I wondered whether I would be able to deliver. But as the days passed, it has been much easier. Pick up kar liya. Ab to yahan ka citizenship hi mil gaya (I've picked up things here. I've effectively gotten citizenship of Aizawl). Change has been good, " he says.