I remember when I first arrived to India back in 2009, I was spending a lot of my professional travel time in Kolkata and Goa as these were the clear hotbeds of Indian football at that time. I can recall those trips vividly, as it was my first consistent taste of the passion for football in this country - not just in the stadiums but on every patch of semi-flat land around.
While there is no denying the appreciation for the sport was there in Kolkata and Goa, what I found missing during those trips was the talent. Of course there were players who stood above the rest like Clifford Miranda of Dempo SC or Subrata Pal of East Bengal FC who were stars of their respective I-League clubs however I found talent lacking in the street or park matches I would watch throughout my time in these cities. The local boys could kick, pass and run but somehow the technique and tactics were just not present – especially when compared the type of play seen on the streets of Europe or South America. And, I do strongly believe that the level of talent seen on the street says a lot about where the respective state or country is at in terms of football development.
Now it’s 2015 and I had the fortune to take my first trip to Mizoram to experience the football culture in the state. I had been hearing about Mizoram football for the past four years from the All India Football Federation’s technical team who established their first grassroots centre in this state, from the Liverpool FC coaches who chose more players from this state to join LIFA-DSK than any other place in India and from players of Bundesliga club TSG Hoffenheim who couldn’t stop raving about their experience playing a friendly match in Mizoram in 2014.
My colleagues and I landed at Aizawl’s airport and were immediately blown away by the green and luscious hills surrounding the landing strip. As we made our way up the windy, mountain road towards the capital city of Aizawl you couldn’t help but stare out the window at the beautiful landscape, which resembled a painting more than actual life. All of the sudden the tall buildings, construction noises and shopping malls of our Gurgaon apartments seemed very far away.
The city of Aizawl itself is a bustling micro-metropolis set high up on a series of hills. Although there are 300,000 people living in the capital, the feeling is relaxed thanks to the attitude of the people and nice mountain breeze which envelopes the city.
Immediately upon entering Aizawl, you can tell that football is a part of the culture. Seems as though every 10th young person is sporting a premier league jersey and, although there are few flat areas in the entire city, kids are tactfully kicking around a ball wherever they can.
We spent the day with Aizawl FC owner, Robert Royte, and his staff of intelligent professionals who feel honored to have the opportunity to associate and contribute to theI-League first division’s newest club. Every sentence, every story, every picture, every dream which was shared with us during the meeting was filled with passion and pride for Mizoram and the beautiful game. It was quite contagious as by the end of the conversation I found myself completely engaged in Mizoram football fervor and was convinced that I must support the growth of football in this state as they not only deserve it, but would make the most of every rupee offered to them.
The next morning my colleague and I trained with the club and, more than the above, what impressed me was the talent the players demonstrated on the pitch. Although most Mizoram boys do not have strong physiques like Pujabis or Haryanvis, they make up for that with speed, agility and confidence on the ball. They had a certain flare to their game which I didn’t see much in some of my previous football site visits around the rest of the country. It’s a flair that when enough Indians master, more players will be accepted on foreign clubs and India’s FIFA ranking will move up from where it currently stands.
The best part of the whole experience was training on a pitch high up in the hills where everywhere you look is plush greenery and views deep into the valleys of Mizoram. For a football management professional, it’s the type of experience that makes all of the long hours in the office staring at power point presentations and excel sheets completely worth it.
I have high hopes for this state when it comes to the future of football in the country as the ingredients are just right for Mizoram to serve as the catalyst which helps India reach its potential as a true football nation.