Mizo Highlanders was the first club from Mizoram to play a national level tournament when they made an appearance in the KBL Federation Cup in 1997. However, they featured in just one match, and were beaten 0-6 by Salgaocar in their first round fixture.
It has been a long wait for the state ever since, but Aizawl FC and their 2017 run in the I-league has made it all worth it.
Aizawl became the first Mizo club to play in the I-League when Robert Romasia Royte, a local businessman of the TT Royte Group, took over in 2011 and transformed it into a professional outfit. Royte struck gold with his decision to bring Khalid Jamil on board as coach for this season.
Khalid’s Journey to Aizawl
The 40-year-old was ousted from his club, Mumbai FC, at the end of last season. Jamil, who is known to be a disciplinarian, had been with the club for eight seasons after starting with their junior team. However, in the summer of 2016, he was asked to leave after being criticised for being a defensive coach who had an acrimonious relationship with some other clubs like Bengaluru FC.
The accusations deeply affected Jamil. Stung by these accusations Jamil was depressed and did not come out of his house for days. When he heard that Aizawl FC was looking for a coach with I-League experience, he applied for the post.
However, that was just the beginning. He replaced Aizawl’s academy coach Johar Das, who had taken over midway through the last season, albeit on a shoestring budget. Jamil knew this was his shot at proving his detractors wrong; and he tread carefully.
Khalid was roped in just a month before the league was scheduled to start. He did not have the budget to bag big names. With just Rs 2 crore in hand, he did not have the budget to bag big names. He opted instead for players that other clubs were not queuing up for. And he brought players who fitted into his system of 4-1-3-2.
Khalid JamilWhen I looked at the squad of players available, I realised they needed some replacements, like a tall goalkeeper, hard tackling defenders, a creative midfielder and a striker.
The new Aizawl FC coach persuaded the tall goalkeeper from Goa, Albino Gomes, to join. Jamil also approached Mumbai FC’s Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rane, players he had coached since their childhood. We came because Khalid asked us and told us we would play regularly, they said.
His master stroke was in the choice of foreigners. Nigerian central defender Kingsley Obumneme Eze was a journeyman who had played for several lesser-known clubs in the Kolkata league like Peerless, United FC and Kalighat. Creative Syrian international midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna, who had not gone home to war-torn Aleppo for six years, was considered to be too old by clubs like East Bengal.
Rapport With His Team
Jamil worked hard to ensure to ensure team spirit in the Aizwal dressing room. There were no disgruntled faces on the bench. Above all, Khalid ensured that the team was fit enough to wear the opposition down in the second-half.
Aizawl beat both Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan at home with solitary second-half goals.
Jamil knew the encouragement from the crowd would keep his team upbeat. He was right – Aizawl FC won eight of their nine home matches and drew (1-1) with Bengaluru FC, so they got 25 of their 37 points at home.
Coaching, With a Difference
During his playing days, Khalid Jamil had been trained by both Bimal Ghosh at Air India and by the taskmaster Syed Nayeemuddin with the national team, and had imbibed mental toughness and a focus on physical fitness, from them.
Bimal Ghosh, who coached him for three years (from 1993-96) said:
Khalid was the most hard-working and disciplined player I have coached and was always willing to learn and ask questions.
Jamil cleverly re-invented himself in Mizoram. He handled the media better and became a persuasive speaker and motivator. In the press conference after the vital last match with Shillong Lajong, Jamil revealed that he had spoken to the players in the dressing room at halftime, when his team was trailing 0-1 at half time. He said
Told the boys that you won’t get another such 45 minutes in your life. We knew we were 45 minutes away from being the Champions. We had to be extra special in the second half.
Throughout the season, Jamil credited team work for the success. “It is not just about me or any individual but all about teamwork”.
When asked about his success as a coach, he always said: “It is about the boys. They played continuously and played well. They deserve the credit”.
At 40 years old, Jamil has a bright future ahead of him. For now though, Aizawl is home.
I like Aizawl and will stay for the next few years.
On 1 May, a day after Aizawl FC were crowned champions, the streets of Shillong were covered with fans who had come together to celebrate their champions.
And watching silently from the sidelines was a man who had fulfilled his own dream. Just a year after being thrown out of a club he spent nearly a decade with, Khalid Jamil was back up on top.
This is my biggest victory ever. I always wanted to win the Hero 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 now we have won.
(The author is a football commentator and analyst. He tweets at @NovyKapadia.)