Lalnghinglova Hmar: Striking the right note

“The year 2003 was the turning point for football in Mizoram. The sport is consistently growing in the state, thanks to the impetus provided by that success,” says Lalnghinglova Hmar, the secretary of the Mizoram Football Association.

A fresco in Aizawl expressing support for the city’s favourite club.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Lalnghinglova Hmar, lovingly referred to as Tetea by friends and colleagues, has been instrumental in making Mizoram a football power in India. As the secretary of the Mizoram Football Association, he introduced the Mizoram Premier League, which inspired the growth of Aizawl FC, the 2016-17 I-League champion.

People of Mizoram are all praise for the vision of Lalnghinglova, who transformed football in the state, which lacked a system and was completely disorganised, into one of the most professionally run set-ups in the country.

Lalnghinglova Hmar... “The MPL is providing the players the chance to join the mainstream of Indian football and they are happy taking it up as a career. Society largely is gaining from this.”   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Speaking to Sportstar, Lalnghinglova throws light on Mizoram football and how it has evolved since the state won its first title, the National sub-junior crown in 2003.

Question: How do you see your journey from assistant manager of the Mizoram team that won its first National sub-junior (under-16) crown in 2003 to becoming the general secretary of the Mizoram Football Association?

Answer: Specifically, 2003 was the turning point for football in Mizoram. Before that we had the talent but nobody believed in us as we could not produce any result. Once we became the National sub-junior champion, people started believing in the talent we have here. If I remember correctly, seven players from that team were called up for the National camp and five represented the country in the Asian sub-junior tournament. From then on, I don’t think there is a single year when the Indian teams did not have a player from Mizoram. It has been 14 years and Mizoram football is consistently growing thanks to the impetus provided by that success.

The biggest change that happened in the state’s football was the start of the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) in 2012. On a personal level, I was writing columns in newspapers and teaching in a college when that win happened in 2003. I was always passionate about football but after that success I became a selector of junior Mizoram sides. I was appointed to the executive committee of the MFA but things were not working well with the association, so I decided to quit before the elections in 2011. But people from all around started pressuring me to become the secretary of the MFA. I did not wish to run for the post, as I have my own business and I am pretty busy, but when players, coaches and many from the administration started coming to my house with the request, I had to give in.

I had a new president in Mr. Lal Thanzara, who is the Health Minister of the state and also an ardent football follower. We set off with three goals: first was to start a professional football league, second was to start an education programme for coaches and the third was to educate the referees. We are currently working on fulfilling those objectives.

How was the Mizoram Premier League conceived and what is unique about it?

The MPL was conceived with the idea of giving the right platform for players from Mizoram to play in a structured format and graduate from there to the top clubs of India. With Aizawl FC becoming the I-League champion there would be enough reasons for many to stay back home. We have 53 registered players from Mizoram in the I-League and that, arguably, makes us the biggest contributors of professional footballers in the country. This is the direct result of the MPL.

Coming to the unique aspects of the MPL, it is a league that is fully sponsored by a television company (Zonet Cable TV), and all the matches, from the start to the end, are shown live on TV. There is no other state league in the country to match this.

Secondly, it has a uniform contract system for the players. The teams cannot pay the players big money as the economy is not very big here, but players learn to build professional careers through this system. The league is well spread out, reaching all eight districts of the state. Each district is given two slots for qualifying for the play-offs and the winners play in the MPL.

The support of the state government is also a big factor in the rise of Mizoram football. Another factor is the total participation of the society when it comes to football. You will see a large number of women and children coming from across the state to see football.

How would you position Mizoram as the most attractive venue of Indian football?

Mizoram for long has been an insurgency-free state, a very peaceful state, which has very good connectivity and natural beauty. We are building a lot of good stadiums in the state — not only in Aizawl, which has four stadiums, but in other districts too. The infrastructure is there and I wish the ISL teams come to Aizawl for their pre-season training. Apart from the infrastructure, Mizoram gives you the right weather and the right altitude for pre-season conditioning. Instead of spending crores of rupees and going to Europe for the pre-season build-up, the ISL teams can find the same facility and climate to train in Mizoram. We, I mean the MFA and the state government, are ready to extend all help and the best hospitality.

Would you attribute the success of football to better employment opportunity the sport creates for the youth?

It is true that there is not much employment opportunity in the state. So when they see the likes of Jeje (Lalpekhlua) — or even Mama (Shylo Malswamtluanga) earlier — earning big money in club football, there are many kids who want to become the next Jeje. The MPL is now providing them the platform to realise their dreams. In the last millennium, football was more like waste of money and time, but in the last decade things have changed much and the talented players are looking at the sport as a career opportunity. The MPL is providing the players the chance to join the mainstream of Indian football and they are happy taking it up as a career. Society largely is gaining from this.

It is also drawing the youth away from drug addiction...

Drug addiction remains a big problem here as much as it is in many other parts of the country. Football is about leading a disciplined life. Anyone who wants to do well in the sport has to adopt a healthy way of life, and the growth of the sport as a big career opportunity is definitely giving the youth a positive direction. We have seen a lot of positive changes in the society with the growth of football.

India’s Jeje Lalpekhlua (foreground), who earns big money in club football, is a huge inspiration for the youngsters in Mizoram. Many kids want to become the next Lalpekhlua.   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

Is football growing because of a healthy community support?

Apart from Aizawl FC and Zo United, which are private clubs, the rest of the teams in the MPL are community based. Like the previous champion, Chanmari FC, which is run by the locality where it is based. It runs with the help of contributions from the local inhabitants there. Even the first champion, Dinthar FC, followed a similar system where the community came together to sustain the club. All the clubs run on a shoe-string budget, but they keep producing good players.

How does the MPL help the players from Mizoram reach other parts of India?

I would like to recall the name of Aizawl FC winger Laldanmawia Ralte, who scored so many important goals in his team’s crucial wins against East Bengal and Churchill Brothers. He was previously with Chanmari West FC in the MPL, which has a very small budget. The player, without any I-League experience, was recruited by Aizawl just after the MPL in December (2016) and see the impact he has made on the fortunes of Aizawl FC.

Also Look at Jerry Lalrinzuala, the Chennaiyin FC left-back who won the ISL Emerging Player of the Year award last season. He was called up for the Indian team. He is young and is already making news with his talent. But he came through Mizoram’s grassroots development system and was later absorbed by the AIFF youth set-up. His story ideally tells one how to scout for talents and nurture them in a proper set-up. There are a lot of players who have the same talent as Jerry, who played for the Chanmari FC under-17 team. It is our effort to provide them the platform where they will be able to showcase their talent.

The MPL helps the players prepare for the big stage — from the Mizoram sub-junior and junior teams to the MPL and from there to the ISL or the I-League and finally to the National squad. We also have the under-17 MPL which draws talents from the grass-roots development programmes. It has a structured club system where the players start learning about the professional aspects of the sport.

There are many from Mizoram in the Tata Trusts’ initiative — which picks around 50 players from the North-East — who are studying and training in Germany. This is an innovative move. Do you think this will change the scenario of football in India?

This is a really appreciable initiative and can be a good example of how to develop the game. Even if one of these players, taken on a six-year programme, makes a breakthrough in the Bundesliga or any other notable European leagues the whole scenario will change. Players there earn millions of Euros, and the Indians need to convince themselves that they can play in the top leagues of the world. The Tata Trusts’ programme is happening in coordination with the Mizoram Football Association and their programme is about doing good to the society, and football is a part of that elaborate programme. Tata Trusts are planning to set up a centre for excellence here, and once we have a big academy with foreign coaches, you will find a bigger talent pool developing in the state.

How do you look at the present scenario of football in India, especially club football?

I am not a big fan of the ISL, but with the entry of a big corporate entity like Reliance with its money power, I have to say that Indian football will grow based on the funds infused into it. This is how it is across the world. With the Indian economy growing, a lot of European clubs are interested in the market here. If you look at Liverpool or Manchester United, they have a big following in India, and it indicates that the sport is a viable investment in the country.