Aizawl FC scripted the most romantic and improbable of victories when they claimed the I-League title with an excruciatingly tense draw against Shillong Lajong on Sunday night.
In a scrappy match where they played an untidy brand of football in the first half, Aizawl did what they have done best through the season -- pulled out the result when it mattered. Shocked by a ninth-minute goal by Lajong FC star striker Dipanda Dika, Aizawl were able to come back from a goal down for only the second time in the season and extract a draw on the final evening, which went down to the last 90 minutes of two matches played in Shillong and Kolkata.
Aizawl became the first club from the north-east to win the I-League on a dramatic evening where their rivals of the night, Shillong Lajong, were determined not to roll over in regional camaraderie. The equalizer scored by an Under-22 substitute William Lalnunfela in the 67th minute was to change the tone and the mood of the crowd at the Nehru Stadium in Shillong. Drowned by a rock-concert-quality PA system for most of the match, the equalizer ensured that the Mizo fans found their voice and a chant for "Aizawl, Aizawl" rose from among the 23,700 crowd.
The knowledge that title rivals Mohun Bagan had moved ahead in Kolkata and that Lajong were not going to cave in, tightened the screws on Aizawl. In the final minutes of the match, Lajong's Dika, the season's top scorer, missed not one but two shots on open goal, which would have snatched a win for Lajong and given Aizawl a heartache of such momentousness that it would have taken generations to recover from.
When the final whistle went, the Aizawl players broke into a range of reactions -- some rushed towards their fans, some fell to the ground offering prayer, the support staff and substitutes ran into bear hugs with players near them, and even a few civil handshakes to the referees.
When the field began to be arranged for the prize distribution ceremony, the Aizawl fans stormed past the barricades and poured onto the ground. It put paid to all the broadcasters plans of an orderly ceremony, in the presence of the Meghalaya chief minister.
This surging but ebullient public reflected what Aizawl has been all season -- a club beloved of the people it came from and whom they belonged to. The PA announcer and the master of ceremonies asked the people to head back to their galleries -- "we are on live..." -- but neither the crowd nor the team paid any attention.
AFC have become champions through the most impossible of margins. Six months ago, they were not even included among top-division clubs, muscled into relegation due to the I-League rules. Five months ago, they finished third in their state-level league, the Mizoram Premier League, albeit with a completely different set-up. Only when three I-League clubs pulled out of the competition did AFC get a look-in once again. Operating on one of the smallest budgets in the competition -- it is estimated that Aizawl's entire budget is lesser than the pay packet of Mohun Bagan star Sony Norde -- Aizawl signed on a coach regarded as a relegation-escape artist and his motley crew a month before the league began in January. Their miracle run through the I-League and their euphoric victory on Sunday night was proof enough that the energy and the emotion that the I-League can generate without much marketing or gloss, is worth protecting and nurturing.
Post-victory, Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil admitted to being "a little nervous" in the last four minutes. "This is my biggest victory -- this was my dream. Every time when I start a season, personally I was thinking that I want to win the I-League, no matter what the team was like," he said. "It was not realistic but I was thinking one year, two years, three, four, five, six... and then [said as a joke to Alfred Jaryan who was sitting next to him] Alfred become the captain and I win."
About coming back from a goal down, Jamil said, "I said only one thing to them at half-time: 'You will not get another 45 minutes. This is the last 45 minutes, just go there and you have to do extra effort. Okay, you are playing good but extra effort should be there not from only one player, but all the players who are playing. If you think about this, you can do it.'"