Disclaimer: I have never seen an I-league match live and until this year, have never really followed the league. Except for the last few weeks. Aizawl FC have grabbed attention and kept it grabbed, their home games making for compelling television. The draw against Bengaluru FC had Sunil Chetri scoring his enraged, emphatic record-breaking equalizer last week. On Monday, there came a rousing victory, their first over strongmen East Bengal. That too on Mizoram statehood day, the win bringing them within a point of I-league joint-leaders - East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. And to think Aizawl FC were almost relegated this season, due to a set of the League's bewildering rules.
Consider this factoid - the club now No. 3 on the I-league ladder was reborn as a competitive team only in 2011. It belongs to a state created in 1987, whose first professional footballer went out onto the Indian circuit as recently as 2002. Aizawl FC is now standing nose to nose against clubs whose individual histories course through and alongside that of Indian football itself.
Like Cole Porter said it's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely.
The television coverage of Aizawl vs East Bengal was far from world-class; but all the same, watching Aizawl FC today was like being there. Much has to do with the fact that a few months ago, I was fortunate enough to actually be there. At the breathtakingly-backdropped but utterly-boringly-named Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in a place called Mualpui, a careering, downhill taxi-run from the main town.
On Monday - a statewide holiday - the crowds rushed in. Some estimates put the figure at 11,345, but that would only be bums on seats, in the built-up western terrace alone. The figure wouldn't have included more bums on ticketless hillsides around the ground, nor feet on rooftops overlooking the field, nor arms strung around branches of trees. Certainly, it wouldn't have included distant eyes and ears of the rest of Aizawl itself. Visible from the eastern flank of the ground, Aizawl sprawls over six or seven hillsides, where clouds float through slivers of houses, offices, workshops teetering on the sides of hills, offering a bird's eye view of the ground.
The noise from the locality of Salem Veng would have floated up to Aizawl town (population 256,399). Mualpui's drums, horns, bugles, chanting, shouting and Mizo oaths would have been audible in the clear air of the hills. Aizawl went at their more-feted opponents all guns blazing but first-half attempts were wayward, wide and into side nettings. All genuine desire, but no real shots on goal. Early in the second half, Laldanmawia Ralte made the most of a defensive lapse, poked at the ball with his right foot and as the floater went goalwards, escorted it into the net. Mizoram has 21 ranges that run north to south; entire hillsides would have shaken.
- Henry Menezes (@menezeshenry) 21 February 2017
When the match was done, East Bengal coach Trevor Morgan marched off the ground in fury and was heard saying, "Today it seemed we got 10 people off the street, gave them a shirt and asked them to go play for us." The Aizawl players, foreigners included, gave their thanks, some face down on the artificial turf, beating the ground with their fists. Aizawl FC owner Robert Royte handed over the man of the match cheque to Laldanmawia and then leapt into a hug, like he was his own son.
It would be good to be in Aizawl tonight, to wander through Zarkawt or Chanmari or listen to the buzz in the football-centric café in Babutlang, just north of Bara Bazar. Team shirts should be flying off the shelves of the Aizawl FC merchandise shop near the other big football ground in town, the Assam Rifles' Lammaul Stadium. No doubt there are people rushing into the Zo Foods restaurant, asking for a discount from owner-footballer Remruata Varte, like he does for Mizoram Football League ticket-holders. After all, it is Mizoram state day and the state's favourite club team has just scored a historic win. Bring on the rice beer.
Aizawl FC are past the half-way mark of the I-League with eight matches left and will play Chennai FC next on Saturday afternoon. I will be watching.