Apart from becoming the first Indian head coach in Indian Super League history, Khalid Jamil might have done Indian football a giant favour – alerting the ecosystem to the ticking football time-bomb that is Mizoram.
The tiny Northeastern state had been on the rise for several years, yet its success was talked about in hushed tones by purists across boardrooms and conference halls. The events of 30th April, 2017 should have sent seismic shockwaves across the Indian football landscape – they didn’t.
Aizawl FC vanquished a trio of Indian football heavyweights in Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, with a budget that was lower than the salaries of some individual players in the I-League. They did so with a core of home-grown players, and it wasn’t a one-off – it was a gritty effort across 18 matches with a wage disparity so huge that it could have put Leicester City’s triumph to shame.
In an ecosystem where states are lauded for sinking money into infrastructure, big-ticket events, centres of ‘excellence’ and a host of other performative PR activities, it isn’t a surprise to seasoned watchers that Mizoram’s raw technical excellence isn’t spoken about.
This state with a population of over 1.2 million people had 30 representatives in the ISL and a further 43 in the I-League – close to 90 footballers in the top 3 national divisions. Hold onto your hats – that’s a national level footballer every 13,000 folks – the equivalent of Mumbai’s Bandra West producing 26 professional footballers. There’s no doubting it – Mizoram was and is India’s Uruguay. The number of footballers the state produces is a close second only to Manipur – a state with four times the population.
The man behind this extraordinary rise is Lalnghinglova ‘Tetea’ Hmar – the honorary secretary of the Mizoram Football Association, an executive committee member of the All India Football Federation and the joint editor of the Mizo daily Vanglaini.
Tetea – son of a former Mizoram Police football coach – may be the country’s best football administrator. The league that he helped institute in 2012 – the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) – has been the launching pad for several footballers who bring home seven figures annually.
Prior to the MPL, Mizo footballers had to travel to Shillong to prove themselves. Larsing Ming, the half Mizo owner of Shillong Lajong, had in fact called Tetea up to ask for five Mizo footballers who could help the Meghalaya club in their bid for I-League promotion. The rest, as they say, is I-League history.
“We have done as much as we can without any support – there are no big patrons or multi-national companies here. Many Mizo footballers in the ISL make more than the MFA’s annual budget,” chuckles Tetea.
The MFA isn’t among the top 15 richest state associations in the country – not by a long shot. Despite all its success, the association struggles for funds every year. COVID-19 played havoc with the state – which has had the longest lockdown in the country and is still witnessing an average of 1000 fresh cases every day.
Alcohol prohibition in the state – a pre-poll promise in 2019 – has ensured that one of the major sectors involved in sponsorship of football has pulled out. Mahindra did once step up to sponsor the MPL, but those days are long gone.
The Mizo Premier League – a source of livelihood for many footballers in the state – was cancelled for the first time in 9 seasons. Tetea estimates that a sizeable chunk of the state’s players retired due to the two-year gap. When Mizoram finally resumed their activities a few weeks ago for the Santosh Trophy, Tetea noted that he hadn’t seen many of the probables before – astonishing considering that the 44-year-old has a personal connection with the MPL footballers.
Prior to the pandemic, Tetea had been very vocal and blunt about the fact that women’s football in the state hadn’t progressed as much as the men’s game. “We have not paid attention to the women’s game – that is a fact, and the pandemic has wiped out a lot of disposable incomes that could aid the growth of the game,” he rues.
In early 2020, a group of girls from Champai district had travelled 24 hours to Aizawl and had won the inter-district women’s championships.
The Kerala FA recently signed an agreement to the tune of 350 crore over 12 years. Tetea estimates that football in Mizoram – the MPL, the U-18, U-15, U-13, the women’s league, the I-day Cup – can be run with less than 1/100th that amount. The magic number? 20 lakhs per annum.
With 20 lakhs in Indian football, you could:
Pay the average ISL footballer for a year
Pay the average transfer fee for a player moving from the I-League to the ISL
Pay the average annual fees for 4 children in a residential football academy
Pay 1/7th the transfer fee of Lalengmawia ‘Apuia’ Ralte – the latest Mizo sensation
Football is today a sizeable industry in Mizoram – all the 11 districts run their own leagues and send their best players to Aizawl. The districts of Lunglei and Champai produce footballers in numbers and the game employs more than 1.5% of the state’s population by conservative estimates.
Pradyum Reddy, ex-Shillong Lajong coach and commentator for the ISL says, “From the days of Robert (Lalthlamuana) and others, they’ve always had good full-backs coming through from there. Part of the reason is that in the modern game, they’ve had athletic players who are good on the ball, especially left-backs, whether it’s Chhauntea, Robert, Lalrozama Fanai just to name a few.
As for the centre-backs, when you start looking away from Aizawl, when you look at the hinterlands, you get players who are broad-shouldered, bigger built and more capable of playing in those positions. Midfield is where you’ll typically always have a plethora of Mizo talent – they are good ball players. Some of them are pretty tenacious tacklers. Once you go wide, you get plenty of them. You get pacy wingers who are good on the ball, two-footed as well. They’re very good with the ball at their feet and like to take players on.”
It’s hard to argue with him. Since the advent of the MPL, Mizoram has won every national trophy on offer. They’re twice defending champions of the BC Roy U17 National Championships. It’s hard to name an Indian football club today that does not have a Mizo on their books.
The likes of Bengaluru FC, Reliance Foundation for Young Champs and Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools have started making the journey to the hilly state to scout. Bengaluru FC picked up a 13-year-old from the Young Legends League (YLL) in Champai, 12 hours via road from Aizawl, whose favourite team is Manchester United. In the Next Gen Cup, the young star in question captained his side against the United Under-15s – another for the footballing fairytales.
Varun Achreja, co-founder of the 8one foundation which started the YLL, India’s first Baby League, in Champhai says there are a myriad of reasons for Mizoram’s excellence in technique. “Despite the landscape being a challenge, the confined spaces have only made them better on the ball where communities, villages and churches play against each other across age groups in a plethora of individual competitions,” he explains.
In Mizoram though, there are a thousand problems affecting football other than the football itself. “Raw technical excellence can only take you so far. We need to invest in player education and coach education. Our players – who sometimes can’t speak English or Hindi – go to clubs and can’t understand instructions. Indian football isn’t the same as before – now foreign coaches come and demand that players instantly follow their lead,” reveals Tetea.
Even though the MFA has spent lakhs of rupees subsidizing coaching courses – a tall affair for a poor state association – the numbers are nowhere near enough for a burgeoning state like Mizoram. By current estimates, the state has about 1 A license and 6 B license coaches. In a poor state, the cost of a D license – a minimum of 12000 – can be sometimes equivalent to what families of four sustain on, for a period of three months.
Players also coming from a background of extreme poverty can sometimes lose themselves on receiving that first pay-check, which might exceed their families’ income for the entire year. A generation of pros – Jeje Lalpekhlua, Jerry Mawihmingthanga, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Isaac Vanmalsawma – are now guiding the younger ones through the process of professionalisation, even though Tetea estimates that Mizo football loses 10 times the talent it produces to a combination of vices, poor primary and secondary education, unstructured competition and below-average football education in the formative years.
Reddy agrees. “The amount of talent that gets wasted coming out of that state is immense. There are so many good young players who never go on to make it, some who make it for a few years but then don’t have sustained careers. There are very few who make it all the way – part of it is culture, part of it is when they come out of there, if they are not in a club where there are not many Mizos, they sometimes feel a bit lost and lonely. Sometimes they go to a club where there are too many – the cliques develop, and the bad habits can sometimes crop up. Finding that right balance of players and getting them to clubs which can get the best out of them,” he says.
There are scores of Mizo footballers who have been lost; take the case of Jerry Zirsanga who became the youngest Indian international goal-scorer ever or Mohun Bagan’s PC Lalawmpuia, who set the Kolkata Maidan on fire in derby matches. Reddy speaks highly of the former Mariner man as well, “In terms of finishing, Lalawmpuia was probably the best striker to come out of there.”
One particular instance of a talent lost is that of a Mizo striker in the same Arrows batch as Jeje – one who was even regarded higher than the ‘Mizo sniper’ himself. The player in question was by all accounts, the best in the entire batch but was tardy, late to training and would indulge in habits which ticked off the head coach at the time. Scoring a hatful of goals for the India U19 team could not save his career.
Mizoram receives funds from the FIFA Forward and other programmes – funds which have been utilized for the construction of all-weather pitches. This infrastructure – required due to the incessant nature of rains in the state – is perhaps not the most pressing need of the hour.
It has been this writer’s observation that politicians involved in sport love infrastructure due to the fact that it leaves a permanent and immediate mark on the legislator’s legacy. The process of investing in more matches, in player and coach education is a longer process and may not bear fruit during the politician’s reign in the assembly.
Even though other clubs may have coaches to shape the lives of Mizo footballers, player education remains an absolute priority. It is imperative that these footballers be taught the basics of a pro footballers’ life from a young age, years before they step out of the state.
Furthering on what can be improved in the state, Achreja says, “The football fertility in Mizoram can be perennial and improve further, if more structured competitions take place at age group levels, the youth leagues and youth departments of MPL clubs take shape. Exposure to other cultures and footballing ecosystems is something they need, and we should all strive to create an environment of learning in the state rather than displacing children from their birthplaces”.
“A Mizo footballer who’s good at the game will surely move out for better opportunities to another state, that outflow is inevitable and integral to the Indian football landscape, and you don’t want this fertile supply chain to have a vacuum,” he adds.
The results that a tiny amount of investment may trigger in Mizoram is unimaginable. The Indian football fraternity call it a goldmine, ‘a guaranteed return of five rupees’ for every rupee spent. A small and timely intervention in an ecosystem, that is technically closer to the powerhouses of Asia than any other, is needed now. A cascading domino outcome of the existing ‘Birthplace culture’ effect combined with the missing pieces of the ‘Nature and Nurture’ puzzle, may result in a revolution that crores of rupees of investment has failed in kick-starting.
The need for the Indian football community to pay attention to Mizoram is at the top of the priority list. The hilly folks have paid handsome dues to Indian football; now it is time for Indian football to return the favour.
Tetea sums it up best:
I wouldn’t call Mizoram a success story. It is merely a story of progress.
By Arka Bhattacharya (Instagram)
This article was originally published as part of the tenth edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/