Mizoram proves a point

THE best thing that Mizoram did apart from winning the 26th edition of the sub-junior (under-16) National football tournament, was showcasing its immense talent pool. The tiny hill-state in the north-eastern part of the country has come up as the major provider of junior talent for national-level tournaments and even for premier soccer schools such as the Tata Football Academy (TFA).

The title established Mizoram's identity in the soccer map of the country. While the North-East in the broader sense signified Manipur, which had been dominating in every sphere of the sport, Mizoram's accomplishment confirmed its distinctiveness in the region.

Interestingly, Mizoram's ascension to prominence was highlighted by its semi-final victory over former champion Manipur. The 11-day action had the final phase of the event being hosted for the first time by the picturesque hill capital of Mizoram — Aizawl.

The format had the five zonal champions — Uttaranchal (north) Tamil Nadu (south), Meghalaya (north-east), Maharashtra (west) and Jharkhand (east) — teaming up with the holder Bengal, last-year's runner-up Manipur and the host in the quarterfinal group league, which was the first part of the final phase.

The zonal competitions prior to the final phase spelt the exit for traditional stalwarts such as Kerala, Karnataka and Goa. This in effect brought to the fore the disparity in soccer's development process in the country. While the states named above flaunt big clubs and have prominent places in the sport's hierarchy in the senior level, they display a dearth of talent in the sub-junior pool.

As could be made out from the records of the last few years, the East and North-East have squarely dominated the final phases of this tournament. A review of the last 10 finals shows that Bengal — the champion in the last two years — won the title six times with Bihar taking the remaining four. While Bengal and Bihar — which drew a majority of the players from the TFA — won the title, the likes of Manipur and Mizoram fell short in the final.

Mizoram, the latest winner of the National sub-junior football championship. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

The league stage this year brought out the eastern supremacy yet again as the challenge of the rest of India was met before the knock-out stage. This stage almost saw a rehash of the line-up of last year's edition held at Neyveli.

From the Group A league Uttaranchal and Tamil Nadu went out, tallying just one point each, which they earned by playing a draw against each other. Mizoram and the defending champion Bengal topped the group on seven points each but the goal difference placed the former on top, while Bengal took the second spot.

Group B had Meghalaya putting up a stupendous performance as it won all the three matches, including a 3-0 thrashing of strong Manipur, to top the league table. Manipur was helped in its venture by Jharkhand that beat Maharashtra in the concluding league match to enable the former to progress to the last four stage with a points benefit.

Despite a lot of shortcomings on the infrastructural front, the host compensated with its incredible enthusiasm and great hospitality. Football being the lifeblood of a sports-loving population, the tournament generated tremendous interest. It has almost been a decade since a national-level meet was held in Aizawl and with the host team making it to the decisive stage the passion reached a stage of frenzy. The semifinals and the final brought in more than half of the city — the conservative estimate put the crowd at over 30,000 — to the First Assam Rifles ground, which has an official capacity of 10,000. The overcrowding, though, never became a problem as the home crowd upheld the spirit of `fair play', cheering every good move even if it came from the opponents. The tremendous sporting participation of Mizoram is a model that the other parts of the country could well follow to minimise mindless violence in football. The weather — with its equability — added to the good atmosphere.

The semifinals cleared the ground for a new champion as the two traditional powers — Bengal and Manipur — went out. The home favourite, Mizoram, extin<147,2,1>guished the hopes of last year's runner-up, Manipur, with a 76th minute penalty — the sub-junior matches are of 80 minutes duration — in the first of the two semifinals. Mizoram thus avenged the 1-2 loss it suffered in the semifinals of the last edition while making its third entry into the final (the previous two being in the 1996-97 and 2001-02 seasons).

But the 1-0 result in the end appeared a poor compensation to the efforts of the host which dominated Manipur. This also exposed Mizoram's inability to score as a good number of opportunities were wasted before H. Laltanpuia relinquished his charge in the defence to aid his team's attack. Laltanpuia displayed versatility coming up as the third attacker and earned a penalty as one of the Manipur defenders handled the ball trying to tackle him inside the box. The Mizo availed of the spot-kick himself to fetch the all-important goal four minutes before the final whistle.

Meghalaya produced the next upset, overpowering defending champion Bengal 2-1 in a great show of resilience. Two goals in a span of three minutes spelt Bengal's doom as Meghalaya accomplished a remarkable recovery in the second session.

Bengal put up a confident show in the first session but abandoned its enterprise after the break giving Meghalaya the opportunity to contrive a comeback. Ashim Das brought up the Bengal goal in the 17th minute to have the defending champion leading at the break.

Complacency seemed to erode Bengal's drive as Meghalaya gradually took charge in the second session. A defensive error by Sandip Mondal, who handled the ball inside the box in the 57th minute, saw Meghalaya bringing up the equaliser through Borland Syngkon from the resulting penalty. The second shock for Bengal came all too soon as Kitbor Kharkongor nodded home a freekick for Meghalaya in the 60th minute. This ultimately turned out to be the match-winner.

Strikers C. Lalthengliana and Vanlalpeka Ralte, who were pathetic for Mizoram in the semifinals, struck form just when it mattered. The final saw Mizoram continuing to show its strength in midfield and defence, which was strengthened by the presence of Laltanpuia who played his role as a sweeper-back to perfection and lent purpose to the Mizoram attacks with his distribution. The first session remained barren. The crowd grew a bit restive at times but the possibility of any field invasion was averted as the local police pushed back the supporters, who threatened to come too near the touchline.

Things changed for the better for the host in the 59th minute when a Laltanpuia pass located Lalthengliana unmarked and the striker did not make any mistake slotting home with an angular shot that beat the alert Meghalaya custodian, Allwin Cosmo, all ends up.

Mizoram's Vanlalpeka Ralte (No. 10) is all smiles after scoring his team's second goal against Meghalaya in the final. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

The insurance goal followed within a couple of minutes as a crisp cross from substitute K. Zosangliana had Vanlalpeka nodding the ball into the net. Mizoram became the 11th state in the list of champions lifting the Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy.

Laltanpuia got apt compliments for his abilities as a thinking and skilful player, being adjudged the player-of-the-tournament. Bengal's Ashim Das became the highest scorer with five goals, while Meghalaya received the fair play trophy.

The results:

Final: Mizoram 2 (C. Lalthengliana 59th minute, Vanlalpeka Ralte 61st) bt Meghalaya 0.

Semifinals: Mizoram 1 (H. Laltanpuia 76th — penalty) bt Manipur 0; Meghalaya 2 (Borland Syngkon 57th — penalty; Kitbor Kharkongor 60th) bt Bengal 1 (Ashim Das 17th). — Amitabhadas Sharma