Paulo Coelho Meneses remembers being captivated by the exploits of a club competing in India, while he was part of the coaching staff of Laos Premier League club Lanexang United FC. "I was coaching in Laos but I was following the other leagues in Asia. So I knew all about how Aizawl played and won in the I-League last year. It was a wonderful thing to happen. It was like a dream result for a small club," he says.
Meneses didn't think then that he would be tasked with recreating that fairytale run to the I-League title, when taking charge of Aizawl FC in September. "The last season was very different than the one this time around," says the 39-year-old from Portugal. "We were just a regular team then. We are champions now. It is a different way to approach a match."
The Aizawl that captivated a nation isn't the one that will bid to defend the I-League title. The reason Meneses is managing the side is because previous coach Khalid Jamil left for East Bengal, whom Aizawl face in their opening fixture on November 28. Jamil took several of Aizawl's best players too - Syrian Mahmoud Al-Amna, Brandon Vanlaremdika and Laldanmawia Ralte were the heartbeat of Aizawl's midfield, while defender Lalramchullova has also gone across to East Bengal. Nigerian defender Kingsley Obumneme is now with Mohun Bagan. Defender Zohmingliana Ralte has joined the Indian Super League (ISL) with Bengaluru FC, while shot-stopper Albino Gomes has moved to Delhi Dynamos.
Aizawl have done their best to plug the gaps. Japanese forward Yugo Kobayashi was signed from Thailand's first division where he had scored 12 goals. Leonce Dodoz of Ivory Coast has also been recruited to strengthen the attacking line. The quality of the previous lineup is hard to match, though. In the absence of Albino Gomes, Aizawl have started with Lalremruata Arema in the Mizoram Premier League (MPL). His record has not been too impressive, letting in 13 goals in 14 games.
Competing in the MPL has come with its own challenges. "We haven't had a chance to prepare for our season with a period of training. The Mizo Premier League is an important tournament for the club so we have played it quite seriously," says Meneses. The format of the MPL -- which permits teams to field only two foreigners in comparison the five allowed by the I-League from this season -- has caused Aizawl to play more local players. "It isn't as if playing matches gives us experience. I would say this is sometimes a disadvantage for us. The players in Mizoram are very physical. After six matches we had four injuries."
In fact, Aizawl play an MPL semifinal on December 4, less than a week after their opening match of the I-League. Should they win that game, they will also have fit in the MPL final in between four games in December. In January, Aizawl's calendar gets even more hectic. They play 12 I-League matches between January and February and the number might rise to 17 if Aizawl keep winning at the AFC Champions League.
Yet, Meneses is confident that this workload will be managed. "The team that won last year's I-League isn't here, but they have left the values of professionalism in this side. It is there in not just the players but also in the coaching staff, ground staff and even the board," he says. "I still try to improve it but it is not something I have to bring in from zero."
Despite the odds that his side face in juggling competitions at state, national and continental level, Meneses is optimistic of his side's chances in the I-League. "There isn't any pressure on us. If anything, we will be very confident because we know what this feeling was like. We have lost many of our players. But this is a new year and a new team," he says. "I've told the players that this is a great opportunity for them. You cannot rest on what has happened. You can't just sleep on what has been achieved. You have to get up and do it again."