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Meet Aizawl FC, a club that rose from relegation to win Hero I-League title

Despite being champion, it may be relegated as India's football league structure is getting rejigged

Pratyush Raj  |  New Delhi 

I-League, Aizawl Football Club
Players of Aizawl Football Club celebrates after they won the Hero I-League against Shillong Lajong FC in Shillong

From being written off as a relegation candidate at the start of the season to securing its first top-flight title yet, Aizawl Club has come a long way to write one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of Indian The club recently humbled Shillong Lajong in a Northeast derby to claim its maiden title.
 
Aizawl FC’s fairytale run to the glory is a rare and incredible story in the present-day Indian that ignites its hope of reviving fortunes. There are few instances of a club born and bred in a northeastern hill town of Mizoram being crowned at this level. And, what makes the achievement more special is that has done it only in its second season.

 
The beauty of Aizawl FC’s success lies at many levels – and not the least because the club was relegated to the second division last year. That was its debut season and Aizawl’s young, untested players were not seen as good enough for the level, and the team’s nightmare ended with it being bundled out of the league. This season, however, was a different story – the team was offered an unlikely way back in after Goan giants and backed out following disputes with the All India Federation (AIFF). Aizawl FC, to put it bluntly, was brought back only to make the numbers. The reinstatement happened barely a month before the start of the new season in January.
 
The club’s feat is comparable to the unheralded English Premier League side Leicester, which won the title in the 2015-16 season after having been on the verge of relegation the previous year.
 
had appointed former India international Khalid Jamil as its coach. Born in Kuwait to Indian parents, Jamil had last season been sacked by Mumbai FC after a seven-year stint with the club. He had been shown the door for “not being ambitious enough”. At the start of this season, Aizawl’s target was only to avoid relegation – understandable, considering it is a club with modest means. Unofficial estimates put the club’s annual budget at Rs 2 crore, including players’ fees, food, travel, stay and medical expenses. By comparison, other Top I-League teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC spend between Rs 10 crore and Rs 15 crore per season.
 
One of Aizawl’s best players, Mahmoud al Amna, comes from war-ravaged Aleppo. Amna, who was the anchor of the club’s performance throughout the season, had been preparing for Aizawl’s biggest match – against defending champions Bengaluru FC – on the day of the recent chemical attack in Syria. Unlike other clubs that go talent-hunting around the country, Aizawl relied on local talent, besides their usual foreign quota. Apart from three players (two from Mumbai and one Goan), all Indian players in the squad are from Mizoram.
 
Just like Leicester City had sprung a surprise last year in the cash-rich English premier league, has proved in India that teams with virtually unknown names can also win, and how! Every match day, sceptics waited for this bunch of novices to trip, only to be disappointed. The team remained unbeaten at home and played a brand of that is synonymous with teams from the Northeast – attacking, yet sublime. The packed stands, even on weekdays, bore testimony to a state crazy about its
 
For the people of Mizoram, is more than just a game, and Aizawl FC’s journey this season represents something far more than just Much like the sport itself, Mizoram is largely forgotten on India’s map because in this state – like the rest of the Northeast – cricket is not the most popular sport.
 
The celebrations for Aizawl FC, however, might only be short-lived. The and its commercial partners, IMG-Reliance, are set to roll out a new league structure for domestic later this year. According to the rejigged format, the (ISL) will become the top-tier, while I-League will become second division (and be called League One). There will also be a new third division league (called League Two) involving state teams.
 
It would be a no-brainer that the domestic champions would play in the top division. Aizawl might end up being the first champions that won’t have a chance to defend their title. Instead, the newest champions of India are staring at the possibility of being relegated – that would, indeed, be dubious and controversial. However, from being relegated last year to becoming the new champions of Indian football, and yet staring the possibility of being relegated again will, indeed, be very unfortunate.

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