On a night heaving with emotion, urgency and desperate drama, the Nehru Stadium in Shillong became a rock arena, with loud music and wild-eyed, screaming fans, and gave to Aizawl FC its most perfect music. The I-League's least-fancied team from its most remote homebase pulled off the cheekiest heist in Indian football and became champions.
For their last 90 minutes of the season, Aizawl and their fans were put through the wringer and the bland 1-1 scoreline can never tell the story. Rivals Shillong Lajong threw away Aizawl's familiar seasonal script with an early goal and made them reach deep into their heart and produce one final stand. To Aizawl, the ninth-minute header from season's top scorer Dipanda Dicka appeared a portent of doom. Aizawl had come back from being a goal down only once this season, at home to Churchill Brothers. The team's most favoured seasonal tactic - to start slowly, control the pace of play for the first 30 minutes wear the opposition down and score late on the counter - was going to be tested on a night like no other.
Aizawl had so much and so many riding on it. At 0-1 down early, the first response was to ensure that there would be no more lapses and an equaliser needed to be found. Defeat was not an option even though, after a dream run, everything appeared aligned towards doomsday. AFC were without two of their crucial players, captain Alfred Jaryan and defender Ashutosh Mehta, both suspended after four yellow cards each.
Then the news that the club management's April 17 request for 'neutral referees' in the last week of competition - no one from the north-east refereeing title contenders Mohun Bagan's matches and no one from West Bengal for Aizawl's - was denied. The entire referees' team from Bengal - even though capable and well-qualified - sent social media into epic outrage with the team formally launching a complaint hours before the match began.
Then the early goal. Lajong, the big daddy and Pied Piper of north-east clubs, the first into the I-League were not about to play the accommodating hosts. Their fans turned out in the largest numbers seen, the locals say, for many years. The thumping bass of their team song - Lajong te la I jong (Lajong it is ours) - didn't stop. To everyone rooting for Aizawl - there were thousands packed into an unsightly corner of the ground, many scattered around the crowd and more than a few among the reporters crammed into a tiny press box, it sounded like, "Ours, ours not yours. Not today."
There were two games of football going on for those on Aizawl's side: one where their side trailed and the other in Kolkata where Mohun Bagan versus Chennai kept the heat in Shillong on a permanent high. Lose in Shillong and Bagan could snatch the title with a win in Kolkata. Towards the end of the second half there came an announcement over the PA system, "Ladies and gentlemen" it said, "the news coming from Kolkata..." was that Mohan Bagan had, as was expected, scored against Chennai City and were resurgent. More doom.
The two coaches had turned into unrecognizable versions of the men seen the previous afternoon; in the pre-match media conference, Thangboi Singto is conviviality and easy conversation. Khalid Jamil, the youngest coach in the I-League is stone-faced, stoic, not given to chit-chat. On the sidelines under the glare of floodlights, the two men became operatic performers. Singto was the driven seeker, bending, swaying, throwing his arms around and pushing his players forward. Jamil was field-marshal, a signals man of sharp, pointed gestures, trying to switch flanks and fill dangerous spaces. He was hollering (accompanied no doubt by a volley of Mumbai's choicest) gulping down gallons of water, the boundaries of his technical area turned into merely some chalk on the ground.
Singto would later say he was deeply disappointed not getting away with a win and that while Lajong had been unlucky on the night, Aizawl were deserving champions. At half time Jamil was to march into the dressing room and do what good coaches do best - find the key that turns the lock that sets their players free. "I said only one thing to them at half time - you will not get another 45 minutes [like this]. This is the last 45 minutes." Go out and put in a last extra effort, together. "If you think about this you can do it."
Thirty minutes into the match, Aizawl had regained composure and shape, taken control of the pace of the match and attacking with menace. But they would need to do what their coach had kept saying after a euphoric win against Mohun Bagan at home last weekend. No matter what they had done in the season, they "needed to finish well."
When the goal came in the 67th minute, following attack after attack, outstanding goalkeeping from Lajong's Vishal Kaith, agonizing near-misses and a disallowed offside goal, a dam was to burst. Substitute William Lalnunfela, 21, who had scored one goal this season from eight matches, latched onto a free kick from Jayesh Rane and sunk the ball into the net. He was to charge across the length of the field to the AFC fans, having finally given their voice. Their singing could be heard around the ground for the first time, their chanting joined in by the many neutrals who supported them. "Aizawl, Aizawl," they went in a release of anxiety. If you listened closely with imagination on call, you would have heard entire Mizoram cheering across its 21 hill ranges. For a short while, there was air to breathe again, a small fraction of calm.
Ten minutes later, Bagan took the lead in Calcutta and the match in Shillong went up a notch. But by then Aizawl were in far better defensive control and the I-league trophy was within touching distance. That however, was to be, as teams coldcocked by Aizawl this season have painfully learnt, a mere illusion. Lajong were determined to serve a nasty reminder.
Four minutes of added time turned into four minutes of meltdown around the stadium. Players were falling to the ground, yellow cards were flashing around like the referee was taking happy selfies and coaches were making whirling changes. Aizawl's painfully-gathered composure was being shredded.
The most dangerous of Lajong players, the goal-hungry Dipanda Dicka was still hungry for more in the last two minutes of extra time. It went down to him, Albino Gomes and an open goal mouth. Not once, but twice. Two heartbeats, two misses. Dicka clutched his head and sank onto the field. Singto was in paroxysms of frustration and the Lajong fans screaming in anguish. To everyone in the stadium, it appeared to be the only response appropriate at the point - a vocal one. People were jumping on their feet, there was shouting; "for f***s sakes, come on, enough, finish it, stop it." End it. We can't take any more. On either side.
We came to Aizawl and the rest is history CHAMPIONS OF INDIA!�� . The people of Mizoram you all deserve this. INDIA IS RED! pic.twitter.com/qj0dA5mDMk
- Ashutosh_mehta1 (@Ashutosh_mehta1) 30 April 2017
Jamil saw the season flash past in his mind, "I was a little nervous. The boys had worked so hard, they had done so much. I was thinking, can we make it or not?"
Watching from the sidelines, Jaryan said "I couldn't bear it. My heart was going badum-badum-badum."
The whistle went and it was over. Ninety minutes, a season and a lifetime of thinking, dreaming and making it possible. The AFC fans stormed onto the pitch, onto Lajong's ground, past the thin security, crowded into the dugout and climbed onto the podium. The People's Club had won the I-League and let their captain carry the actual trophy into the safety of the AFC dressing room and kept on celebrating. They already had their prize.
All season, words used to describe Aizawl FC's ascent over four months have focused on what could not happen - impossible, implausible, unimaginable, inconceivable, unthinkable. All season, AFC have paid no heed, marching to their own tune. As they soldiered ahead, playing their own brand of hardscrabble football, what they have listened to are words of their fan anthem. Khalid Jamil and his team made the anthem their single instruction on Sunday night. It says: We will not surrender.