The north-east derby is too pat a term with which to describe the Shillong Lajong vs Aizawl FC match to be held at the 30,000-seater Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Sunday. Yes, it is a final-round I-League match between two clubs from the north-east of India, but its promise and possibilities have taken on a larger, wider existence.
For Aizawl FC, a title awaits. To Lajong it means proof of life of their stubborn investment in their young players. For the coaches involved it will be validation of their standing in the game. For Indian football this is a defiant stand of the community club as against its corporate versions being added to the mix.
First, though, to the football and the business of how Aizawl must manage stepping into an atmosphere so tantalising, unfamiliar and rarified that they could easily find themselves out of breath. The comforting familiarity that worked in Aizawl's favour last Saturday against Mohun Bagan is no longer around them. Two of their outstation stars -- Alfred Jaryan and Ashutosh Mehta, central to their success -- will have to sit out the game on the back of four yellow cards. Mehta told the AIFF website, "It hurts, hurts a lot. It has come at the worst time. I am just biting my hands and nails."
Aizawl's options will be to reach into their local talent pool in the midfield and coach Khalid Jamil didn't bother to share the on-field solutions he will try to find. AFC are lined up against a football club that not so long ago were mascots for the entire region, created to attend to a broader idea rather than local ambition. Lajong coach Thangboi Singto reiterated Lajong's larger identity. "People say if Aizawl FC win this match it will be very important for north-east football. Ninety-five per cent of our boys also are north-eastern boys and representing the north-east is very important for us. The stakes are very high, for us it is very important that in this match we do very well. Aizawl FC winning will be great but for us winning tomorrow is very, very important."
The teams had a joint press briefing, with Singto and Jamil ready to lather on the mutual compliments. Singto said Jamil and he had attended the same AFC pro-licensing course in Japan together, and complimented the man sitting next to him as "an Indian coach at this stage on the verge of being champion". Jamil said he always found that matches against Thangboi and Lajong were "very difficult". He was harking back to this experience with Mumbai FC, saying Lajong's compact defence and aggression at home was tough to manage. "Most of the time I played against him, I was not successful," Jamil said. When it was pointed out that Aizawl had beaten Lajong in their previous encounter this season, Jamil said, "Maybe one but only one."
Khalid's self-deprecation aside, Lajong have scored as many goals (23) as Aizawl all season, but let in almost the same amount (22 compared with Aizawl's 13) with a mere three clean sheets from 17 games. Singto puts it down to inexperience, not skill-errors, but it is a statistic that would not have gone unnoticed. Given the absence of Jaryan and Mehta, it is the regional core on both sides who may have to step up and seize the day. Lajong have stuck to their younger players, despite a poor start to the season. Aizawl have cannoned forward maximizing their resources and know at this point the championship is theirs to lose. "All of us are excited, but we're not overexcited," said Brandon Vanlalremdika. That is a state of mind only tested when placed into the heat of actual competition.
Aizawl will also be without their home fans, whom Zohmingliana "Zotea" Ralte called their "12th player" and Singto said were the ones who had pushed the team to do far better than had been expected. Two thousand A-category (away) tickets have been sold to local Mizos and close to 500 are said to be on their way from Aizawl. Many are flocking to Shillong's Mizoram House for tickets, and to be close to where their beloved team is staying, at a guest house called Apsara.
Mehta was talking about Mizoram but it could have been the entire region itself, when he said, "If you ever want to believe what football madness is, come here." There are many outside Mizoram invested in Sunday's result. Five hundred kilometres east in Manipur, Arun Thangjam, manager and one of the directors of NEROCA FC of Imphal, second division I-League leaders, told ESPN, "We take the name of Aizawl FC to our players. We say if they can do, we can do. They have been a huge motivation for our youngsters." There are six rounds of the Second Division left and should NEROCA win, there will be three north-eastern teams in the I-League. Which may or may not exist going by the usual chaos of Indian football.
Writing in Saturday's edition of the Nagaland Post, a Naga football coach, Ayeto Ayemi, asked, "Imagine if the club was from Nagaland itself? ... just getting to the situation they [Aizawl] are in today is a cause for celebrations... I appeal to my fellow brothers and sisters that when football comes calling or the ball comes rolling your way please support the football cause."
Everyone who knows anyone in Shillong will be at the Polo Grounds stadium on Sunday, from the average punter to local pundits, football-mad bureaucrats and politicians alike. Tickets at Rs 150 per head have sold smoothly, available in several parts of the town. Author Ankush Saikia will be there on behalf of his Mizo friend, a teacher in Aizawl. The mononymous Freddie, who describes himself as a man of many parts floating around in Police Bazar, has nothing but admiration for Aizawl. "Aizawl FC are die-hard. Lajong, they act so much." He won't explain other than saying that his neighbourhood football star won't talk to anyone now.
Reuldy Shabong and Samborlong Kharbih, who run a local restaurant called "The Hut", will be at the game on Sunday, their one day off from business. As loyal but anxious Shillong fans, they are staggered by Aizawl. "So early in the league, they came, they saw..." and Shabong says, "and they've almost conquered. They're close."
It will be Lajong's best I-League finish -- fifth -- but as owner Larsing Ming Saywan himself said of Aizawl, "We've been here before. We saw Wahingdoh finish third when the best we could finish was sixth. There was a lot of euphoria then and obviously when a team does better than us our fans start questioning us and neutrals start talking in different tones. But the fact of the matter is that Lajong are still here and Wahingdoh are gone." In their place instead are Aizawl FC with their results-first-questions-afterwards approach. In the now, at the top, on the edge.