A league of their own

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Pride and glory The jubilant Mizoram team after winning the Santosh Trophy
Pride and glory The jubilant Mizoram team after winning the Santosh Trophy. Photo: AFP

Brazilian football star Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known to his fans as Zico, was one of the finest footballers of the late 1970s and had a huge fan following across the world. Amongst the thousands of fans he had, one was Lalvulliana, a government primary school teacher in the remote Khuangleng village on the Indo-Myanmar border in Mizoram. As there was no television in his village, Lalvulliana would travel nearly 240 km to state capital Aizawl to watch Brazil play in the World Cup. Like many football- crazy fans, the school teacher also named his first-born after his hero, Zico.

Twenty-three years later, this Zico from India’s northeastern-most state lived up to his name by leading Mizoram to its first-ever Santosh Trophy win, arguably the biggest football tournament in the country.

On 9 March, Zico Zoremsanga, scored twice as Mizoram brushed aside the Railways 3-0 in the final of the 68th Santosh Trophy at Siliguri, West Bengal.

“When I named him Zico, deep inside, I wanted him to pursue football,” says Lalvulliana, tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. “I am proud of my son.” An enormous public reception awaited the victorious team in Aizawl. People lined up the streets to welcome their heroes that had given them a rare spot in the national limelight. Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla declared a public holiday to mark the historic victory and the party is still on in the hilly state.

“It took me some years to understand who Zico was,” says the Mizoram skipper. “Like any other child in Mizoram, I too started playing football at a very early stage. But, it was not until much later that I felt the urge to take it seriously.” For Zico — the Mizoram one — winning the Santosh Trophy has easily been the highlight of his career. “It still gives me goosebumps to hold this cup,” he says, just showing how much it means to him.

This year has been a golden year for Mizoram football. The senior team has won the prestigious Dr TAo Memorial Football Championship, considered the biggest football tournament in Northeast India. The junior team won the under-17 National Championship and now, the Santosh Trophy win has been the perfect icing on a very layered cake.

These successes are the result of a silent football revolution that has been happening in Mizoram for over a decade. At the heart of it is a Mizo footballer, a supportive state government and a newly launched professional football league that has changed the very mindset of how Mizo youngsters look at the sport.

Like in neighbouring Meghalaya, where a guitar rests in every house, in Mizoram, you would find a pair of football boots hanging from the walls.

Things were not always like this, a fact attested to by every modern football player in Mizoram. “In Mizoram, everyone is passionate about sports,” says David Lalrinmuana, a member of the Santosh Trophy winning team. “Football is a way of life, but the youth are more focussed on education that will get them jobs. Earlier, the only way someone could take football seriously was to get a government job in the sports quota, but things have changed for our generation.”

There was passion alright. In 2002, Shylo Malsawmtluanga came down from the hills of Aizawl to the maidans of Kolkata to play for the coveted East Bengal club. Soon, he became popular and donned the national jersey. In the process, Mama, as he is known in Indian football, became a role model for other aspiring Mizo footballers, inspiring the likes of Lalrindika Ralte, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Pachuau Lalawmpuia, Robert Lalthlamuana, Samson Ramagawia and Jerry Zirsanga. Within a decade, over 20 players from Mizoram were playing professional football in the top clubs of the I-League. Many of them have also gone on to play for the national team.

Dempo Sports Club’s Jeje Lalpekhlua explains just how big that inspiration was. “Until Mama donned the East Bengal jersey, we did not think we could play professional football,” he says. “He inspired us, helped us find clubs and also planned our roadmaps into professional football.” Jeje is the newest sensation to come out of the hill state; in 2013, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) adjudged him the player of the year.

While the advent of the I-League in 2007 has helped Indian football gain popularity, it was Shillong Lajong FC, the first club from Northeast India who made it to the league that gave an impetus to budding footballers in the region to make it big. “Shillong is an education hub and a lot of young boys from Mizoram come here for their studies,” says Lajong FC’s General Secretary Larsing Ming. “A couple of them have made it to both our senior and junior teams.” The Santosh Trophy win has just been the right shot in the arm of young Mizo footballers to pursue their dream. “If Lajong making to the I-League was the first landmark, then Mizoram winning the Santosh Trophy is the other big moment,” says Ming.

The beginning of this millennium saw the emergence of Baichung Bhutia, probably the biggest icon for football players outside the regular centres. Bhutia heralded a change, and the next decade — even beyond a decade in fact — saw more players from the hills take over the field from the Bengalis at Kolkata’s maidans, and shift the limelight from the stylish Goans and the lanky players of Kerala Police. In 2005, Manipur won the Santosh Trophy for the first time, then the only state from the Northeast to win the championship.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) came forward to fund the Vision Manipur Football Project aimed at honing young talent in the insurgency-infested state. Soon, the local leagues saw a phenomenal change and Manipuri footballers started to venture out. Within five years, half of the Indian football team was from Manipur — Renedy Singh, Surkumar Singh, Gourmangi Singh, Somatai Shaiza and others. A lot of young boys from the Northeast started to get enrolled at the Tata Football Academy (TFA) in Jamshedpur.

For Mizoram, the change happened at the grassroots level. While most state associations are marred by infighting and politicking, Mizoram chose to strive ahead. The Mizoram Football Association (MFA) diligently implemented the FIFA-AIFF grassroots programme. Largely ignored by the mainstream media, the state has gone about its work in a quiet and effective manner. Even without any Central-sponsored sports project and no operations of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Mizoram invested in three astro turfs, two in Aizawl and one at Lunglei. A fourth one is coming up at Champai. The biggest push came in 2012, when the MFA along with the local cable TV network ZORAMNET, christened the state’s first professional football league — the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) — with a ceremonial kick-off by Baichung Bhutia.

“After that, the story has been very encouraging,” says journalist-turned-sports administrator Lalnghinglova Hmar. “It was an instant hit. Within two years of its inception, the MPL became the biggest event in Mizoram. The matches are telecast live on the local cable network, played under floodlights and you have people of all ages coming out to watch. The footballers are local heroes, they endorse local brands, some of the young ones even have huge female fan followings. The frenzy is at par with the English Premier League.”

Hmar is also the general secretary of the MFA and is trying to send one of the MPL clubs to the I-League. But that is easier said than done. “We have the talent and the basic infrastructure,” says Hmar. “But to go to the I-League, a club will need no less than Rs 5- Rs 6 crore. Who will spend that much in Aizawl?” It took a lot of persuasion to get the 1.5 crore for the MPL. With no private sector or corporates around, arranging the finances for a club to play in the I-League is Mizoram’s new challenge.

For the football fanatics of Mizoram, this victory is also about taking the community ahead. “Our community is a small one, but we are close-knit,” says East Bengal’s Lalrindika Ralte. “We are trying to help younger players. Whenever we are home during the off-season, we play friendlies to raise funds for the junior and village teams.” If that is how a 21-year-old thinks, then it does augur well for Mizoram’s football.

ratnadip@tehelka.com

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