Aizawl FC: Mission accomplished; present perfect, future uncertain

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Aizawl FC are the crowned kings of I-League soccer. Mission accomplished. Doubt shattered. More avenues to open. And, more challenges to face. Now, to deal with the time-tested phrase ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’.

The champion will have a reputation to defend now. A status to maintain as well. This needs continuity. That has to be an immediate and first big worry for the I League champions. For Aizawl FC, there will be no competitive action at home worth their skills and newly-acquired status. The opportunity they can look out next are 2017 Asian Champions League qualifiers and if they can’t make it to the elite competition, Aizawl FC play the AFC Cup next year.

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The cites now are on AFC Cup. The right to claim the coveted continental glory is earned. That’s just the beginning of the journey ahead, more treacherous with uphill tasks. From finances to enhancing skills. Players will hit the ground soon. What transformed the talented bunch into the crowned champions of Indian soccer won’t suffice now. The challenges ahead are certainly bigger than the gains from the success, which few would have expected when the ‘relegated team’ was reconsidered for induction in the league.

The club officials are wary of the facts. The club, till now with a worth of rupees two crore, will need from Rs 20 crore to 40 crores a year for player, coaches, support staff, training and travel. Sources are limited.

“We don’t have any corporate sponsorship. I, therefore, want to start a construction company in the club’s name so it can earn its own revenues and become self-sustainable,” club owner Robert R. Royte has said hours before the summit clash, says a report by The Telegraph, Kolkata.

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Uncertainties go hand in hand with the Aizawl club. The league they won itself is not sure about its future. The threat of Fifa scrapping the I-League from next season still looms. What next for Aizawl, then? Indian Super League to expand – from eight to 10 teams. Two berths up for grabs. For a big fat purse of Rs 15 crore. For, which even the traditional names of Indian soccer Mohan Bagan and East Bengal are seeking a waiver, for their glorious past, heritage value and contribution to the sport. A window of an ISL opportunity may open for Aizawl as well. The realty for that dream lies in a bank balance of no less than 15-20 crores. Over and above the Rs 20 crore figure is needs to meet own basic expenses.

Doubts over power dreams. Considering the fact the club was shot down for funds in 1998, just 14 years after its inception. Only to be revived by Royte after 13 years.

The Aizawl FC’s win, though, is a paradigm shift for Indian soccer, though . It will inspire young talent. It will motivate corporate to show some faith in new entrants to the big league. “Yes, there will be some impact and small teams will be inspired to invest in football and market might react positively to the high passion which is visible from small teams coming from North East and other cities,” Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa regional development officer for Southern and Central Asia, had told InsideSport. “But it all depends upon each of the clubs how they approach the market with a long-term plan and connect fans. On the whole, the win by Aizawl will certainly inspire in many ways.”

In this market-driven scenario, the little heralded Mizoram club, a supposedly non-starter for I-League this year, gets into the league decider needing just one point for crowning glory – ahead of defending champions cash rich FC Bengaluru, and traditional powerhouses Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Emotions played more than the resources for Aizwal. From start to the league-decider goal in the 67th minute after hosts’ 9th-minute strike that threatened to shatter the Aizawl dream.

“Only one thing which is ‘You will not get another 45 minutes. This is the last 45 minutes. Just go there and do extra,” that’s how coach Jamil had inspired his lot. He too will get better offers now. His emotional connect stays. He won’t move. That faith, that commitment, that connect from this talented lot will matter to the club for the next few years.

What does this success mean Aizawl FC in particular, Indian soccer in general. The possibility of absorbing I-League teams into ISL, the big bash of Indian soccer leagues, will be confined to Bengaluru, Bagan and East Bengal. The scenario for financially small teams remains dismal. Even the entities to carry soccer tradition in India – Bagan and East Bengal – are pleading to ISL for waiver of the proposed Rs 15 crore franchisee fee for IPL, as the number of teams is set to rise from eight to ten.

The scenario is changing. North-East domination is there. It needed recognition. Aizawl success will ensure that. “North Eastern states have been very fond of football, but have been neglected for a very long time. There are as many as fifty to sixty players from Manipur who are playing the league, and the number will surely go up. North-East is the powerhouse for football. And the story of Aizawl says it all,” said Rennedy Singh, former India international and assistant coach of FC Pune City.

The win will ensure Aizawl an instant fame. Few better openings in the market. Some rise in team values. Better inflow on balance sheets. But beyond that it will have a long way to go. To make it to the next grade. Where entry is ensured big bucks, big goals only give hope for future. Some other day, some other time.

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