Aizawl FC - The making of a champion

While the Big Three (Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC and East Bengal) struggled in the I-League this season, Aizawl FC went about doing the basic things right and slowly climbed to the top of the league table — a position it did not surrender.

Aizawl FC fans celebrate the team’s I-League victory.   -  AIFF Media

Aizawl FC, like they say about Rome, wasn’t built in a day. While the team’s I-League triumph this season will be heralded as the greatest underdog to top dog story of Indian football, it is important to acknowledge the tremendous work that went into the making of the side that has a perfect blend of youth and experience.

 

READ: Red Army turns Aizawl FC’s triumph into a special occasion

Aizawl’s performance early in the season went under the radar with everybody focusing on the Big Three (Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC and East Bengal) of the I-League. While the three struggled, Aizawl kept doing the basic things right — win at home and snatch whatever it could from the away matches — and slowly climbed to the top of the league table, a position it did not surrender. Sportstar takes a look at five major factors that made this Leicester City-like victory possible for Aizawl FC.

PHOTOS: Aizawl FC celebrates historic title with community

Right man at the helm

Khalid Jamil was once described as ‘India’s best footballer’ by esteemed coach Subrata Bhattacharya   -  Special Arrangement

A few eyebrows were raised when former Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil was recruited as the man to lead Aizawl FC, ahead of the 2016-17 season. After all, a sacked coach doesn’t always make an exciting signing, does he? But what many forgot was that Jamil was the longest serving Indian manager in an I-League club when Mumbai FC showed him the door last season. The former Indian midfielder, once described as ‘India’s best footballer’ by esteemed coach Subrata Bhattacharya, also has a wealth of experience having played top-division football with Mahindra United, Air India and Mumbai FC.

Jamil’s ability as a shrewd tactician was evident in his Mumbai team’s capability to outwit stronger oppositions. However, it was his team’s will power in squeezing out wins and draws in unfavourable circumstances that made it a mainstay in Indian top-division football for a long period. Jamil’s ‘smash and grab’ philosophy was just what Aizawl FC — which played attractive football but often failed to finish off matches — desperately needed.

Key signings

Amnah, who was born and raised in the war-torn Syrian town of Aleppo, added experience to the young Aizawl midfield.   -  AIFF Media

 

A manager can’t win matches without players who can execute his plans to perfection. Jamil took his favourites from Mumbai FC — forward Jayesh Rane and versatile defender Ashutosh Mehta — to Aizawl and the two played a crucial role in the title run. But the signings that really made the difference were Ivory Coast striker Kamo Stephane Bayi (from Salgaocar FC) and Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Amnah (Sporting Goa).

The 20-year-old Ivorian striker played 16 games for Aizawl and was the highest scorer for his team with seven goals. Amnah, who was born and raised in the war-torn Syrian town of Aleppo, added experience to the young Aizawl midfield. Nigerian Eze Kingsley Obumneme’s presence in central defence and Albino Gomes’ coming-to-age season as a world class goalkeeper gave Aizawl a well-balanced look.

Mizoram’s football revolution

Players of Mizoram team celebrate after winning the National sub-junior championship in Kozhikode recently.   -  PTI

Aizawl FC’s story won’t be complete without a mention of the ongoing football revolution in Mizoram. The team recently won the national sub-junior title (defeating North East rival Meghalaya in the final), and the capital city’s I-League success caps an exciting five-year period of football for the state which also won the Santosh Trophy in 2014. The staggering growth of the game in the state, which now contributes more than 50 players to India’s top division leagues, has been attributed to two factors:

i) The Mizoram Premier League (MPL), a semi-profession league launched in 2012, which ensured regular football opportunities for local players and also became widely popular with the football fans.

ii) State Government’s investment, aided by the FIFA grassroots programmes, on infrastructure that has seen quality astroturf facilities come up across the state.

An exciting local core

The 22-year-old left-back Lalruatthara had an outstanding season in the defence.   -  AIFF Media

 

Former Indian football player and manager Jahar Das has been quietly overseeing a young group of players at the Aizawl FC Academy. And when the going got tough for the team during the four-month-long season, it was these young players who stood up for their side. The 22-year-old left-back Lalruatthara had an outstanding season in the defence while Brandon Vanlalremdika impressed in his attacking role. Defenders Lalthakima, Lalrinzuala Khiangte and Lalramchullova also had breakthrough seasons with the team. Having an exciting talent pool allowed manager Jamil the opportunity to experiment, and more importantly, have a back-up to his preferred XI in case of emergencies.

The twelfth man

A full house was guaranteed for all Aizawl FC's home matches at the picturesque Rajiv Gandhi Stadium.   -  AIFF Media

 

The football crazy fans of Mizoram played a huge factor in making the matches against Aizawl FC a formidable experience for travelling teams. A full house was guaranteed for all home matches at the picturesque Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, overlooking the mighty Lushai Hills. The Red Army cheered for their favourite team during its ups and downs, and was clearly the 12th man for the team, which did not lose a single game in its fortress.

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