Little-known football club, Aizawl FC, etched its name in I-League history when it edged football giants such as East Bengal and Mohun Bagan to sensationally clinch the title in dramatic fashion last season.
It all boiled down to the last tie of the season, where Aizawl played out a draw against Shillong Lajong FC to top the league table spectacularly by a sole point. In the process, it became the first north-eastern outfit to lift the prestigious I-League trophy.
Not many would have predicted that such a small club would achieve success of such magnitude, leading to a flood of comparisons to Leicester City's English Premier League triumph in 2016.
“We are compared to Leicester many times. They won the Premier League title and it’s a small club if you compare it with the other clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City. It’s the same for Aizawl, nobody knew of us before we won last season,” says Paulo Meneses, Aizawl’s newly-appointed head coach.
“We are a small club compared to Mohun Bagan or East Bengal, but that’s not a problem, we will try to defend our title. Like I always tell my players, don’t take any pressure, just have ambition,” says the determined coach.
A lot has changed in the squad over the last few months, with a host of players heading to bigger I-League clubs, while some others attracted Indian Super League (ISL) contracts. So much so, that even the coach, Khalid Jamil, left the side to join three-time I-League champion East Bengal.
“That is the reality. Many players have gone to ISL clubs and even the coach has departed!” remarks the 39-year-old. “It's normal when the players perform well and the bigger clubs sign them. Even I tell my players that if they perform well here, they will certainly get offers from better clubs and probably even play in a higher level of competition outside India,” he says.
However, as the players leave the side, the management and the coach have the daunting task of identifying and signing talented players to rebuild and bolster the squad. While this could be seen as a deterrent to the side’s campaign, Paulo chooses to see this as an opportunity. “A coach must have solutions. I always think positively and wherever I find a problem, I treat it as an opportunity to improve and as a chance to challenge myself.”
Preparation for the I-League
Aizawl has been preparing hard to defend its title and has played a host of friendly matches, with the most recent one being against Chennaiyin FC. Apart from this, the club is also participating in the Mizoram Premier League (MPL), where it is currently second on the table and is gearing up for a semifinal clash against Mizoram Police FC on Thursday.
No dearth of talent in Mizoram
The Portuguese seems pleased with the level of competition. “In the MPL, all the teams want to beat Aizawl FC because they know we are the I-League champions. And all the players want to show their skills and qualities against us because they know we can sign them in our team.”
Mizoram is widely known for its excessive footballing talent and it was the first to undertake the FIFA Grassroots Project in 2012. The football-hungry State has produced many a great footballer, with the most promising one being the charismatic forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, who has scored 20 goals for the national side and has also excelled for Chennaiyin FC in the ISL. Other notable players include Jerry Lalrinzuala, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Robert Lalthlamuana, all of whom will be seen in action at the ISL.
While the ISL certainly attracts top talent with huge paychecks and its share of glitz and glamour, the MPL has no dearth of it. It actually acts as a platform for the Mizo players to display their skills and in turn reach bigger clubs, which is exactly what has happened this season.
“We have chosen four players from the MPL, who will be joining our squad once the tournament ends,” says Paulo, while adding “The Mizo players are very competitive. They possess sound technical skills and don’t give up a single ball.”
Bringing some Spanish flavour to Aizawl
Paulo has had a widespread managerial career and most notably worked alongside Vincente del Bosque for the Spanish national team in tournaments ranging from the Confederations Cup, to the European Championship and even the FIFA World Cup. Will the Portuguese look to bring some of that Spanish flavour to Aizawl?
“Aizawl plays a very attractive attacking game with ball possession and tries to create many chances on goal. Our style of play is to recover the ball quickly whenever we lose it and we’re a lot like the European teams. While we do play tiki-taka, we don’t try to imitate the European version of it but play our own version of tiki-taka,” he notes.
“One thing that a coach must do is to know the ideas of the players and find out what style of football they are more comfortable with. Then, as a coach, you join your ideas with theirs and this works better,” he adds.
On pressure and expectations
The Portuguese has a massive task cut out ahead of him in successfully helping Aizawl defend its title. When asked if he faces any pressure while stepping into the massive shoes of Khalid Jamil, he calmly replies, “When I tell the team to not face pressure, it reflects how I feel. The image of the team reflects the coach’s image. When you speak to them, you transmit whether you’re scared or motivated. If you try to pretend, they can sense it. So just as I tell them to not take any pressure, I don’t take any either.”
Speaking on the expectations from his side, he says, “Of course, there are expectations, huge expectations from us to perform. I have not made any far-sighted targets and choose to take it game by game and week by week. However, I’m currently focusing on the MPL and we need to win it. The board and the fans want the MPL title and that remains my major focus for now.”
Aizawl begins its I-League title defence against East Bengal on November 28th, in what promises to be an exciting and emotional tie as the side faces its former coach donning a new jersey. "It will be a big game but the pressure is on them and not on us," concludes Paulo, thwarting any signs of stress, as always.
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