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A step towards football resurgence

A team few thought had a chance of even making it to the top level, went all the way to become the champions of Indian football.

Fairytales. It's a term used often nowadays to describe a dream run of a team of smaller stature, compared to its illustrious rivals. For example, Leicester City's run in the English Premier League last season, where they went on to become the champions of England, has been the stuff that legends are made of. It's practically guaranteed that everyone, from the fans to the players, will tell the story of an underdog's triumph over the big guns for years to come.

This year in the I-league, a team few thought had a chance of even making it to the top, went all the way to become the champions of Indian football. This is the team, which in last year's edition had been relegated to the bottom after finishing eighth, but was reinstated when the AIFF handed them a way back to the I-League as a few Goan clubs reached roadblocks in their talks with the governing body. Yes, I am talking about the newly crowned champions Aizawl FC, who, after a neck to neck battle with Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan, etched its name in the annals of football history by becoming the first team from the North-eastern part of the country to win the coveted trophy. At the start of the season, if you had told any football fan that the team for the North-east would topple heavyweights like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Bengaluru FC, they would call you crazy. But as the final whistle was blown to draw the curtain on this edition of the I-League, Aizawl FC was the club that was standing with its head held high among the fallen warriors. This is the beauty of football. Sometimes it may tread a tried and tested path bordering on the familiar, but there are times when the game springs such surprises that it leaves supporters, players and even the managers in awe. In India, a country which is mainly known for its cricket, football has always been considered somewhat of a red-haired stepchild. Even before the advent of the cash-rich IPL, Indian kids were always encouraged to play cricket as it would lead to more fame, money, and recognition. It's a fact that in this country cricketers are worshiped like demigods while all the other sports are shunted aside. If a kid wants to play football, he is told about the trials and tribulations that a football player has to go through to make it big and is often discouraged from taking up the sport as a hobby. But if recent events are an indication, slowly and steadily, India is getting ready to buck the trend.

Just like the IPL, Indian domestic football also received a shot to the arm in the form of the ISL or the Indian Super League. Though, after the first season, it has lost its momentum somewhat, this is definitely a good start. Indian audiences, who had been exposed to legends of world football like Alessandro Del Pierro, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Materazzi, David James, David Trezeguet, Florent Malouda, Mikaël Silvestre, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka, John Arne Riise, Helder Postiga, Adrien Mutu, Luis Garcia and Joan Capdevilla only through recordings on TV, can now witness their heroes play live.

As a national team too, India has improved in leaps and bounds as our ranking in the recent FIFA list jumped to 101 and we have a distinct possibility of cracking the top 100 in the near future. With the advent of social media and the ISL, Indian football is finally getting some part of its due recognition. Earlier, only two regions of the country were famous for their football spirit. One was the state of Bengal and the other region was the North-eastern states. The Bengal giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan need no introduction as these clubs have always been synonymous with churning out footballing greatness. The rivalry between the clubs and their legions of fans are the norm for legends in Bengal. The North-eastern teams are, however, not celebrated as much as their illustrious counterparts but hopefully, after the historic victory, Mizoram's Aizawl FC can turn it around.

North-east India is considered as the original hub of football and with its win, Aizawl FC has won hearts not only in North-east India but in all corners of the country. Football is much more than a sport in Mizoram. Nothing else can raise such fever-pitch excitement in the state. But it's only in recent years that the popularity is starting to manifest itself into something tangible. Aizawl's historic win has opened the doors of opportunity, not just for the players but for the residents of Mizoram as well, as football takes first priority there. This victory may well change the course of history in the small state, with kids looking up to local heroes, to whom they can relate.

Unfortunately, given the uncertainty surrounding the next season, due to the impending merger of the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL), a massive question mark hangs over the team's future. The two organisations wish to have only three clubs from the I-League playing in the retooled ISL, and those are the more glamorous teams of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Bengaluru FC. Thus, a dark cloud is hovering over the future of these professional players and the underdog clubs.

Aizawl will be representing India in the AFC Champions League next year, but they might not even be playing in the top echelons of Indian football in the future. The ISL, in future, will be an even bigger commercial juggernaut and with its merger with the I-League, it may become more commercially successful, but in doing that, it will lose the essence of the beautiful game, where a team of plucky upstarts created history, just to be relegated to a sideshow in the upcoming map of Indian football. After their triumph this season, surely Aizawl and the North-east deserve so much more.
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