How Aizawl FC broke the Indian football order, and then some

Champions don't get relegated. Not unless they are bad at the back or bad to the bone.

 |  5-minute read |   02-05-2017
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There is no better way to stick it to the big man than scupper his good deal. Walk in, make a mess and leave him to do the cleanup. Aizawl FC have done just that.

There are several things unprecedented in their title run, the least of them being that they are the first team from the Northeast win the I-League title. The keenest will be the way in which they have broken the establishment and forced them into tough choices.

Let's start at the beginning. Mizoram contribute more than 50 players to clubs in the top two divisions of the I-League (the most from any Northeastern state), and yet they have never come within the sniff of glory.

Aizawl FC, established in 1984, are the champions of India. Such rank outsiders, that are - to make it clear - not even champions of the 2016-17 Mizoram Premier League.

football-pti_050117104911.jpgAizawl FC just won the title on a budget of Rs 2.2 crore, the equivalent, some say, of the annual cost of Mohun Bagan's star striker Sony Norde. Photo: PTI

Not to begrudge them the title - this is after all the greatest feel good story Indian sport has had in a long while - but, Aizawl FC are not supposed to be here. They were relegated last season, finishing second last in their debut season in the top division of Indian football. (DSK Shivajians finished last. But the AIFF has offered them a three-year reprieve in a "corporate quota" scheme.)

Technically, they should have been in the second division. A management problem got them back.

Prior to the start of the season, the AIFF announced a new plan, that of a merger of the two leagues currently inhabiting the Indian football landscape. The first is the FIFA recognised I-League, a decade-long competition that has wallowed, and decayed, but has also thrown up the occasional bit of sorcery and magic (Bengaluru FC being the grand wizards of most of it).

The second is the Indian Super League, a league of richness, brashness and IMG Reliance sponsored pyrotechnics. The ISL is where Alessandro Del Piero, Joan Capdevila, Adrian Mutu, Robert Pires, Helder Postiga and Michael Chopra play.

It is the well-marketed, beautifully broadcasted, thrillingly advertised, football league India so wants to be their own.

Teams that win the I-League get a qualification round entry into the AFC Champions League, and failing that, a first round shot at the AFC Champions Cup.

Teams that win the ISL get a pot of money, lots of advertiser love, and airtime with an Ambani or two.

Now for the merger. This, of course, is for the "betterment of Indian football" and to ensure that fans aren't divided in their loyalties (I have yet to meet a Delhi Dynamos fan).

It is also to bring in some much-needed cash flow into the game in India. All fair points.

The merger would turn the ISL into the top division of Indian football. Three clubs from the I-league would be allowed to join (Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal) provided they could fork out the "franchise fee of 15 crore" required to enter the top division. Bagan and East Bengal are still contesting this, asking for a reprieve on the grounds of being "heritage clubs".

At first news of the merger and its financial demands, Dempo SC, Salgaocar and Sporting Goa withdrew from the new season, thus prompting a recall for Aizawl, and direct entries for Minerva Punjab and Chennai City.

The plan was that the regulars would win the title. Everyone would drop down, and voila, the merger would work out fine.

But Aizawl, plucky little Aizawl who didn't follow the script have screwed this up royally. They are the champions. This is a club that has just won the title operating on a budget of Rs 2.2 crore, the equivalent, some say, of the annual cost of Mohun Bagan's star striker Sony Norde.

There is no chance in hell, they can shell out Rs 15 crore to play in a faux league that may or may not get recognised by FIFA (For all their corruption and inefficiency, FIFA are surprisingly good at understanding football).

Champions don't get relegated. Well not unless they are bad at the back or bad to the bone.

AIFF is still of course within its rights to invite Aizawl FC to come along for the ride, provided, of course, they can pay for it. And Aizawl, of course, are within their right to tell them to stuff it, because they cannot pay for it and they are the champions. So go get a new trophy.

This is the problem now. Do they, in the case of the latter, do the deal, push the reigning champions of India, their entry to the AFC Cup - down to the second division - because they can't pay?

Or, do they allow Aizawl FC, the club with the tiniest budget, a shot with the real money men?

Besides, wasn't Aizawl winning it proof enough that money doesn't actually mean much when the referee blows the whistle? It's the tiniest of details.

As Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares observed in their short story, Esse est Percipi, "Mankind is at home, sitting back with ease, attentive to the screen or the sportscaster".

Ironically, Aizawl FC's fans haved lived that screen reality for the past four months. So have thousands of others who love the plucky underdog. Remove them from the screen, and people may just start asking the questions.

Also read: Indian media's hollow celebration of Manipuri girls and Aizawl FC is predictable


Vaibhav Raghunandan Vaibhav Raghunandan

Vaibhav Raghunandan is a designer, illustrator, photographer and sports writer. He runs marathons in his free time.

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