Let's get this out of the way at the start: Aizawl FC are the I-League champions and should be part of whatever version of the league's top division takes shape next season. That is not an emotional or subjective assessment but one based on the protocol that underpins all credible football leagues across the world. To do so otherwise would be to rob Indian football of whatever credibility it has gained in the past few weeks -- largely, it must be said, because of Aizawl's feat.
Which brings us to the emotional part. The Aizawl story is one of the best things to have happened in Indian sport for a long, long time. Theirs was not a one-week sprint, nor even over a month; it was a marathon run over 18 matches, more than four months of hard slog, plotting the conquest of Indian football from their base in the southernmost tip of India's north-east. Yes, that's how remote Aizawl is.
Not any more, of course; Aizawl -- the club, the town and the crazy fans -- now dominates our consciousness. The obvious and proximate comparison for their achievement is with Leicester City, who also avoided relegation (though by their own hands and not outside intervention) and then, following a change of coach, scripted an improbable, and equally emphatic, seizing of the title from the hands of the elite, far more wealthy clubs. Those with longer memories will recall how Deportivo La Coruna, from the north-western corner of Spain, beat Real Madrid and Barcelona to the La Liga title in 2000. Or even how the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon -- a team as closely bonded as Aizawl -- upset the (then) mighty Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.
The beauty of Aizawl is that what it represents is far greater than merely the sum of its parts, and that's good news for Indian football in general. The coach, Khalid Jamil, plied his trade in Mumbai and brought with him this season the grit and khadoos (cussedness) that kept Mumbai FC punching above their weight for seven seasons. The team itself combined the best of Indian talent outside of the big clubs -- goalkeeper Albino Gomes from Goa, Jayesh Rane from Mumbai, Zotea Ralte from DSK Shivajians -- with experienced foreign hands, including the captain, Liberian Alfred Jaryan, and Syrian Mahmoud Al amna, and local youth talent. And, famously, all on a budget less than what Mohun Bagan paid their star striker Sony Norde. Smart hires, good grassroots programme, committed fan base, an invested management team. Aizawl FC are the perfect example of how a small-town club can be run.
There are so many lessons in this for the All-India Football Federation (AIFF). So much from the Aizawl story that it can hold up to the world with pride. And so much that it can hold up to all the other teams in Indian football to say, What Aizawl did this season, you can do too. You just need to believe. Sadly, there's the problem. To believe, to have belief. The trust levels between football's stakeholders -- especially the clubs -- and the federation that runs the game in this country are so low as to even undermine the belief that the clubs have in their own ability to achieve. There is little hope, for example, among the smaller clubs that their interests will be on the agenda when the map of Indian football is redrawn.
What happens next is anyone's guess. The AIFF has not said clearly whether Aizawl will or will not be in next season's top division. There have been murmurs of support for the club from all and sundry, including the sports minister in Delhi, but it's tough to say how much is principled and how much posturing. Yes, there are rules and procedures the AIFF must follow, boxes to be ticked, criteria to be fulfilled but the best sports administration -- indeed the best management of any kind in any field -- is to adjust, accommodate, when there is a greater good.
It is undeniable there is a greater good at stake now, for Aizawl, for the north-east, for Indian football. Aizawl have set the ball in motion; for the AIFF not to pick up the pass and run with it will be to score an own goal.