This is no fairy tale, Aizawl FC are real

Aizawl FC gets heroes' welcome back home (1:02)

I-League champions Aizawl FC were greeted by thousands of fans as they celebrated their historic triumph. (1:02)

As much as they are from this moment in time, Aizawl Football Club also belong to another age. Along with the raw thrill of watching their critical match against Mohun Bagan under rain and cloud, the last round of AFC's adventures has carried the sweetness of reassurance. Of the fundamental components that make the inexplicable possible: passion, belief, desperation, dreaming. These would shine through in a less wealthy but pre-cynical age and today they are working for Aizawl.

Eight months ago, even their owner couldn't imagine it. Robert Royte told ESPN that he would ensure Aizawl finish "in the top three" of the I-League with the salaries of Bengaluru FC's three overseas players. AFC's subsequent achievements have come on an annual estimated budget of around Rs 2 crore, among the lowest in the league.

Yet, it is Aizawl who have scaled the heights of the I-League, a feat no one in Indian football thought possible at the start of the season. Now we know how foolish it is to challenge hills people about heights.

After their last home match, Aizawl FC were invited by Mizoram governor Nirbhay Sharma for a round of morning "tea". The tone was set by the knowledge that I, also an invitee, could easily walk into Mizoram's Raj Bhavan. Its gates were open to the public, security queries were gentle and the words "Aizawl FC" were enough.

The club have become the most romantic story in Indian sport for many years and it is easy to be enchanted. Aizawl is a small town in a small state. Mizoram's entire population is equal to that of Ranchi or Raipur. Its football club has every small-town quirk. AFC have painted an entire wall of Treasury Square with a poster and a string of sponsors' names tagged on below. Along with some well-known national names there appear logos of a local gym, a filling station, a rural bank and a bakery.

Teams travelling to Aizawl cannot travel in any transport larger than a mini-bus. That's the biggest vehicle that can physically negotiate the dozens of hairpin bends that curl around the roads of this town, wrapped around hillsides. Everyone knows the Mizo players travelling to practice and matches on their motorbikes. When in town, they could get called out in public if they don't turn up at their local church for service.

The community ties stretch seamlessly across club affiliations. Zohmingliana (Zotea) Ralte, Aizawl's goalscorer against Mohun Bagan, rushed off to meet his friend and opponent Jeje Lalpekhlua after the match. He had to comfort him over a foul he'd committed on Jeje and (he giggles) got away with.

Zotea and Jeje live in different worlds, though. Aizawl FC's highest-paid Indian player earns in the region of Rs 8 lakh (for the five months of the league on loan from annual ISL contracts.) Jeje is said to be in the region of Rs 80 lakh. AFC's total team wage bill, it is believed, wouldn't cross Rs 1 crore. When AFC travelled to Bengaluru, the team stayed at the Park Residency which had its tariff -- Rs 1,899 -- advertised in numbers bigger than its name on Residency Road. (The two Kolkata giants, by contrast, stay at the upmarket Lemon Tree, where the rooms cost at least double.)

What Aizawl had done, Governor Sharma had said, "is not about money. If it was about money, other clubs with more money would have done better than you."

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The governor, an ex-army man, spoke affectionately to the players, his informality in sync with the Aizawl vibe. He asked the non-Mizos how much of the local language they'd learnt. Most replied, "Ka lawm e (thank you)", to which he said, "Even I know that!"

Then defender Ashutosh Mehta, a Gujarati from Mumbai, piped up with a response that illustrated the informality of the atmosphere. "Chhelo e," he said, to approving hoots from his mates. "Chhelo e", it emerged, is a classic Mizo chat-up line that, directly translated, means, "You're not too bad." In reality, it says you're pretty darn good.

The bonds run deep. The older pros speak glowingly of the younger boys, how hard they are ready to work and eager they are to learn. When asked about his colleagues and their style of football, Syrian international Mahmoud Al amna -- in his first season at the club -- told ESPN, "It's not about style or things like that. Mizo players are strong, they have strong character. Any player can play any game, they are not scared. This is good for the team. It is different from any other place I have played in." The younger men look up to their experienced teammates for an illustration of how best to lead footballing lives -- captain Alfred Jaryan's calmness, Al amna's heart, Kamo Stephane Bayi's infectious hunger for goals.

Team spirit is an ephemeral thing, largely dependent on success, and it is bubbling in Aizawl. But what begat what -- team spirit or success -- is hard to tell. It started, you imagine, through the peculiar friendship of an ambitious and far-seeing owner and a maverick coach. For whatever reasons the club may have been formed in 1984 and no matter the ethnicity of its fans, this season Aizawl FC have extended themselves beyond identity.

They have become an extraordinary idea: in which the driven owner of an anonymous outfit convinces a hard-edged, rough-tongued committed Muslim to set up base in a Christian-dominated, pork-eating, rice-beer-drinking community and create a football team. To pull off the greatest magic trick Indian football has ever seen in a while. In doing so, the team and the owner and the coach have found their place in the sun. Movies made of this would get called schmaltzy.

Aizawl FC are for real.