When the nation had locked itself upon the fear of an engulfing pandemic, a few intrepid footballers decided to brave the scourge and make a 1500 km drive from the city to their homes in Mizoram. Faced with the spiralling crisis, the National federation – AIFF – decided to bring an abrupt end to the I-League season in the third week of April. Life came to a standstill all of a sudden as the plug was pulled on the public transit system across the country marooning many players away from their homes. Stranded for an unspecified period, the footballers of different states and nationalities, employed with different clubs in Kolkata, were left counting days in the confines of their apartments.
Lalrindika Ralte, the East Bengal captain and a celebrity in Kolkata’s football scenario, came ahead to the aid of his compatriots who were desperate to go back to their homes and families. “Home is where everyone wishes to be when there is an unprecedented crisis like this. Our careers have been built on executing plans drawn by our coaches on the football field. I just thought of applying that a bit differently and formed a plan about returning to our homes,” Ralte says from Aizawl, where he completed 21 days of quarantine after arriving there in the second week of May.
It was the third phase of the nation-wide lockdown and the Aizawl-bound group had to arrange enough resources to complete a route that definitely was not one of the smoothest in the country. A few days preceeding this, a bunch of Spaniards, including the I-League winning Mohun Bagan coach Kibu Vicuna, showed the way by travelling more than 1500 km on a bus to Delhi, from where they boarded a special flight home.
The former India midfielder broached this idea to his Mizo colleagues in East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and they instantly approved of his plan. “A total of 14 people, which included players and their spouses, agreed to the plan. We arranged five cars for the purpose as we needed sufficient space to carry food and water to survive the journey. We needed to stock up well as there was no chance of getting any provisions on the way,” Ralte said, while adding that the party decided to rest in the night alongside the highway and drive during the day. Joining Ralte in the journey were his East Bengal colleagues Brandon Vanlalremdika, Edmund Lalrindika and Danmawia while Lalchhawnkima (Kim Kima), Lalramchullova and Lalramzauva Khiangte came from Mohun Bagan. Vanlalbiaa Chhangte was the lone representative from Mohammedan Sporting.
“We procured transit passes both from Bengal and Mizoram authorities but our journey got stalled time and again as we had to wait for long hours at different check posts -- stationed to screen Coronavirus careers. The check posts came at regular intervals through Bengal and Assam,” Ralte said about the arduous journey. “The trip was unique as it turned out to be our first experience of returning home by road. The Google Maps was our only guide in the journey which alternated with cruise on smooth highways and bumpy rides on rough roads,” Ralte, commonly known as Dika, said.
They carried 'fruits like apple, pomegranate, bananas; nutritious biscuits, bread, pasteurised milk, cornflakes, eggs and two crates of drinking water in each car' to last the four-day trip.
“The journey was mentally sapping because of the constant fear of the contagion and physically draining as we remained sleep-deprived. Maybe this is where our fitness regimes as footballers came handy as we were able to cope with the rigours of the extremely long journey,” Dika says. The group set off from Kolkata on May 8 and made it to Aizawl on May 11. “It was not immediately home as we were put on quarantine for five days at a Government designated centre. After the release we are asked to stay put at home for another 16 days to make it a total of 21 days quarantine,” Dika says.
Having successfully warded off the threat of Coronavirus, the likes of Dika, Brandon and hundreds of other footballers in Mizoram are put into another phase of quarantine as the start of the new football season remains wrapped in uncertainty.
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