Football game in progress at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Aizawl Credit: Tetea Ralte

In Mizoram, football isn’t just another sport. It is a way of life. A population of just 1.26 million makes the state the second least populous in the country behind Sikkim. However, on the football field in recent years, Mizoram has punched well above its weight, providing a steady supply line of players not just for clubs in the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League but also the national team.

Players such as Jeje Lalpekhlua, Lalruatthara, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Jerry Lalrinzuala and several others have become household names and firmly established Mizoram as a powerhouse of Indian football. This dazzling success however hasn’t been achieved merely by chance. Over the last decade or so, the Mizoram Football Association (MFA) has diligently created a structure that allows the burgeoning talent in the state to accomplish its full potential. In the capital city of Aizawl, leagues operate all year round, giving players the chance to compete in multiple divisions.

Nearly every village, even those in hilly terrains, boasts of a football ground and ferociously competitive tournaments are held between local teams. This endless supply line of skilled and well-honed players has delivered fairy-tale results. In 2016-17, Aizawl FC won the I-League in only their second appearance in the top tier of the competition. Mizoram also won gold at the National Games in 2015. A year earlier, the state had won the Santosh Trophy, India’s leading inter-state tournament.

Gospel Vanlalsawmi collects the RFYS 2018-19 Aizawl City Championship Trophy

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While basking in the glory of this consistent success, the MFA hasn’t wavered from its mission of developing a robust grassroots eco-system for the sport. Though tournaments for schools and colleges are commonplace in the state, since 2017, the MFA has forged an alliance with the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) to establish a structure that delivers professionally conducted events to a scale not witnessed before. Lalnghinglova Hmar, fondly known as “Tetea”, Honorary Secretary of the MFA and an Executive Committee member of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), remembers the obstacles faced by school and college players before the RFYS tournaments were conducted. The calendar was packed but haphazard and grounds weren’t easily available with club teams staking claim to the same facilities.

The collaboration between the two organisations focused on the same goal of giving young talent the best opportunity to flower was an instant triumph. By the time the RFYS tournament rolled in for its second edition in 2018, the MFA was an active partner in every aspect of its successful conduct – from convincing local government authorities to provide facilities at reduced costs to ensuring the pitches were in pristine condition. Local volunteers were roped in to assist in conducting the event, ensuring there was no language barrier, and creating a carnival-like atmosphere at the grounds. The participating teams had a clear pathway to aspire to, with the best among them progressing from the city to the zonal rounds and onwards to the RFYS National Finals in Mumbai, where the best teams in their age-group from around the country awaited them.

Gospel Vanlalsawmi in action during the Aizawl City Final of the RFYS Football Championship 2019-20

“The Mizoram Football Association is immensely appreciative of the RFYS for its collaboration,” says Hmar. “It holds a firm belief that football, at any level including schools, should ideally be operated through state associations. And in order to have a successful partnership with a prestigious name like RYFS, the MFA has successfully tackled many challenges, as well as upgraded itself to cope with the demands for excellence which has ultimately resulted in massive strides towards comprehensive progress.”

“Football and footballers stand to benefit the most from this partnership,” he adds. “As matters of talent spotting, cultivating discipline and developing of players are all performed under the watchful eyes of the state FA, we hope to have an even more successful partnership in the future.”

Already, emerging players from the state have felt the positive impact of the collaboration. For instance, before 2017, schools in the state would struggle to form a girls team. One of the major issues was the lack of playing numbers. But how things have changed since. Now, it is common to see several girls teams enthusiastically participate. No wonder, some exceptional talents have come to the fore.

Gospel Vanlalsawmi was one such player, sparkling in Mount Carmel School’s run to the city title in 2018 and then again in 2019. She won both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards in 2018 for being the best player and leading goal-scorer of the tournament, and a year later won another Golden Ball. Gospel’s talent was so eye-catching that Mizoram’s top women’s team, Vakiria FC, recruited her after observing her performances at the RFYS tournaments.

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Lalnghinglova Hmar, Honorary Secretary of the MFA and Executive Committee member of the All India Football Federation

The benefits from the collaboration have also trickled down to other areas in the state’s football eco-system. Several coaches have had the opportunity to complete their D-Licences, sponsored by the RFYS, enabling them to pass learnings onwards to their wards. Hmar describes the coaches as “unsung heroes” that play a pivotal role in the creation of better players and teams. Besides upskilling the coaches, professionally conducted events such as these also provided a steady source of income to individuals performing key roles, such as match officials, referees, match commissioners, physios, security personnel and ambulance operators.

“It was a great privilege to be a match official during the RFYS tournament in 2019,” says local referee Zorempuia. “I improved in many ways such as physical and mental fitness due to this experience. I hope to be involved in a similar capacity in such future tournaments that help boys and girls of high potential really improve.”

Successful Coaches from Mizoram at RFYS D License Course 2019 in Shillong (Standing) extreme right – R Zothanmawia (seated R-L) Larry Lalremsiama (2nd) and TC Zonunmawia (5th)

With scouts from the MFA keeping a close eye on RFYS events in the state, doors have opened up for the most talented among the players to represent Mizoram at various age groups tournaments as well as other national and regional events. With an association in all districts closely monitoring players and reporting back to the state association, the player base is sure to find the transition easier once RFYS decides to expand its events to all districts across Mizoram.

Hmar is also hopeful that as has been the case with other players who were scouted by ISL clubs from the RFYS National Finals, Mizo players too will make similar inroads in the future. For now, he and the footballing community in the state are waiting eagerly for normalcy to return after the Covid-19 pandemic so activities can return to normal and a collaboration that has worked wonders for the development of the sport at the grassroots can resume.

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