New Delhi: The one thing that catches the imagination of sports fans around the world is a great underdog story. Muhammad Ali did it in 1964. USA ice hockey team did it in 1980. Indian cricket team did it 1983. Leicester City did it on 2016. And now, Aizawl FC have pulled a similar rabbit out of the hat to stun the world and create their own miracle. From being relegated last season to winning the title this year, this is a journey legends are made of.
Aizawl FC has become the toast of the nation after they became the first team from the north-east region of the country to lift the I-League title. People will talk about Aizawl achievement for years to come as the players didn't just fight it out on the pitch week in week out, but also had to overcome enormous odds off the pitch to etch their names in the history books.
In 2016, Aizawl had been relegated into the second division after finishing eight. But as luck would have it, they were handed a lifeline by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) after a few clubs pulled out of the league. The Mizoram-based club also defeated last year's champions Bengaluru FC twice in the Federation Cup which played an important role in getting them back into the top division.
Not just that, Aizawl also works on a seasonal budget of almost ten times less than that of top clubs like Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC. The amount these big clubs shell out year after year just to bolster their squads with star names is much more than the total budget of Aizwal FC. Just to put things into perspective here, Mohun Bagan acquired the services of Haiti star Sony Norde for Rs 2 Cr, which is almost equal to Aizawl's budget for an entire year.
Congratulations to @AizawlFC for winning the @ILeagueOfficial! 🎉🎉Keep up the good work lads! 👍👍📷- @ILeagueOfficial pic.twitter.com/6T1d54G6QG— Tottenham Hotspur (@Spurs_India) May 1, 2017
For head coach Khalid Jamil, the championship marks the completion of the circle of life in the league â which began with getting sacked by Mumbai FC in 2016 and ending with winning the league with Aizawl FC in 2017.
"This is my biggest victory ever. I always wanted to win the I-League. Every time at the start of the season I used to tell myself that this year I should win it. I had to wait. And today we have won," said an ecstatic Jamil, who played an instrumental role in scripting one of the most famous nights in I-League's history.
Players sometimes look towards their coach to help them come out of a sticky situation and something similar happened in Aizawl's final league match of the season against Shillong Lajong on Sunday. With Mohun Bagan high on their heels, eagerly waiting for Aizawl to slip up, the minnows saw their dreams converted into smoke as Lajong's Dipanda Dicka scored the opening goal of the match with a sublime header.
At half-time, the score read 1-0 in favour of Shillong and doubts must have started to creep in the minds of the Aizawl players. However, their manager issued a rallying cry in the dressing room at the break which completely changed the outcome of the match.
"At the half-time, I just told the boys that you wonât get another such 45 minutes in your life. We knew we were 45 minutes away from being Champions. We had to be extra special in the second half," Khalid Jamil revealed.
Aizawl came out of the blocks a different team altogether and William Lalnunfela finally scored the equaliser in the 67th minute of the match, which ultimately resulted in Aizawl lifting the title.
We came to Aizawl and the rest is history CHAMPIONS OF INDIA!🏆 . The people of Mizoram you all deserve this. INDIA IS RED! pic.twitter.com/qj0dA5mDMk— Ashutosh_mehta1 (@Ashutosh_mehta1) April 30, 2017
Aizawl's journey will be well documented in the years to come and will be seen as an example for young turks who wants to challenge the already-established big guns. And as for the I-League, the likes of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC will wear a wary look whenever they come across another new club on the football pitch. This is no fluke. This is the result of sheer hardwork even when there seemed to be little light at the end of the tunnel.