The Indian football space is seeing a new wave. Jeje Lalpekhlua (the heir apparent to Sunil Chhetri), Jerry Lalrinzuala, Laldanawia Ralte and Lalruatthara are all top-quality players who can easily stake a claim to play in India’s starting eleven – not to mention the likes of Lalchhuanmawia Fanai, Malsawmzuala and Daniel Lalhlimpuia, who have all represented the country. And they are all from just one state.
In fact, before the merging of I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL), 58 players (20% of domestic players) to the I-League came from this state alone.
No this is not Manipur – but tiny Mizoram!
Despite having a population of just 11 lakh, the state remains a significant repository for football talent in this country. Although the state did contribute players in the past, it’s only in the past decade that it has made a real dent in the Indian football scene.
In 2014, the state won the Santosh Trophy, defeating the Railways 3-0 in the final. In the past four seasons since, it has reached the semi-finals on three occasions, of which they lost two in penalty shootouts.
Mind you, the teams Mizoram sent to the Santosh Trophy in the past four seasons were bereft of the state’s best players, since they ply their trade in the I-League or ISL. Greater success came in the 2016-17 I-League season when Aizawl FC became the first club side from the Northeast to win it.
Please note – they had only entered the league the season before.
What explains Mizoram’s phenomenal rise as a factory of football talent in India?
Many in the state would point to one man—Lalnghinglova Hmar (fondly known as Tetea Hmar), who is the current honorary secretary of the Mizoram Football Association and an executive committee member of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
A history graduate from St Edmund’s College in Shillong, Hmar has been the driving force behind what many are calling a revolution in Mizo football.
Elected unopposed as the secretary of the MFA in 2011, Hmar got down to making football a lucrative career option for young Mizos desperate to make it. In 2012, the MFA started the Mizo Premier League (MPL) Cup containing the eight best club sides from the state.
What makes this state-run league special is the broadcasting rights it sold to a local cable network – Zonet Cable TV Pvt Limited – to telecast all matches live. The five-year deal signed in 2012 was worth approximately 1.25 crore (Rs 25 lakh per season).
It became the only local league in India to sign a broadcasting deal—a major step forward. Both the MFA and Zonet recently signed a five-year extension on the deal amounting to Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 30 lakh a deal).
All the money the MFA generates from the TV deal goes into paying prize money, player fees and investment into grassroots training. Meanwhile, Zonet takes care of the commercial and broadcasting aspect.
“We have very talented players in Mizoram. However, we didn’t have the necessary structure to harness all that talent. Only the lucky and extremely talented ones would get picked up by elite football institutions in the country like the Tata Football Academy. What we wanted was to provide Mizo players with a platform to play at the highest level.
We didn’t want them to just pursue football as a hobby, but as a full-time career,” says Hmar, speaking to The Better India.
Football is very close to Hmar’s heart. His father was a coach for the Mizoram Police team. Growing up, football was an all-encompassing presence in his life.
“From the moment I took office at MFA, my objectives were clear—create a proper state league, develop talent from the grassroots, produce a factory line of talent and promote them the best way possible,” he tells The Better India.
“Starting the MPL and signing the TV deal with Zonet were massive risks, but we were determined,” says Hmar. However, his gamble began to pay off as the state’s landmark football stadium, the Assam Rifles ground, also known colloquially as Lammual, began to see crowds of 10,000 plus attending matches, not to mention the thousands more watching the games at home on their TV sets.
“The revolution in Mizo football began with the start of the MPL,” says John Zothansanga, a sports journalist based out of Aizawl, who has also written an in-depth book titled ‘Savun Hampur – The Mizoram Football Story’, chronicling the history of football in Mizoram.
Speaking to The Better India, John speaks about how the sport became popular in the 1980s, but a majority of locals only saw it as a hobby.
“In those days, the only football one played at an organised level was for government-sponsored football clubs that would pay somewhere around Rs 500 a match. Players would work different jobs to support their passion. Knowledge levels were limited, and many weren’t even aware of the fact that people got paid to play football,” says John.
Making matters worse was a poorly organised state league, shoddy infrastructure, lack of sponsorship and a shortage of good coaches.
The rot in Mizo football ran deep.
However, things changed with the emergence of a speedy winger S Malsawmtluanga, popularly known as ‘Mama’ to locals, who signed for Kolkata giants East Bengal in 2002.
“He was the first professional footballer from Mizoram. Before this landmark signing in 2002, Mizo players had never quite dreamt of playing football professionally,” says John.
Mama’s success at the national level, performing in front of massive crowds, offered every football-mad kid in the state the dream of playing professionally. “He definitely sparked a real interest in Mizo football,” says John, speaking to TBI.
Today, scouts from all over the country converge at these football tournaments. In the 2017-18 season the Kerala Blasters left back Laluruatthra won the Emerging Player of the ISL. He began his playing career at the MPL. The season prior to that saw Chennaiyin FC’s Jerry Lalrinzuala, another left-back, win the Emerging Player of the ISL award.
These are future talents that are going to serve Indian football for a long time to come.
Things have come along way from the Rs 500 days. For those playing in the MPL, depending on the club side they represent, players are up to Rs 40-50,000 per month. On an average, however, players are paid around Rs 12-13,000 per month, says John.
For the rest of year, they are either sent out on loan to other clubs across the country or in certain cases you have Aizawl-based clubs like Chanmari FC acting as feeder clubs to ISL side Pune FC.
Having said all that, Mizo football has a long way to go. Speaking to The Better India, Hmar marks out two major challenges before the MFA—funding and sustaining the current success.
“There is no corporate presence in the state. The only sort of external assistance, besides the television deal, we receive is from the State government, which gives around Rs 17-23 lakh per season for the MPL. However, the lack of funding cannot be an excuse. We must go on striving. Of course, it’s hard for us to compete with bigger states, but that won’t stop us. If we thought the lack of funding was too much of a constraint, there would be no MPL,” says Hmar.
Even Zonet, the local cable network investing in football, hasn’t made a profit yet. “Making football history is more important than losing money. Our passion for football made us offer Rs 25 lakh annually for the first five years of MPL for television rights. We managed to make an average of Rs 15 lakh yearly from sponsors, but the satisfaction of seeing football develop has wiped out the losses,” said LV Lalthantluanga, the general manager of Zonet, to Hindustan Times.
Another major challenge staring before Hmar is the sustaining this success. “We have to maintain this level of talent production and consistent performance at the highest level for the next 15-20 years at least. If not raise the bar, we have to at the very least maintain it. We can’t drop down. Also, we need to figure out a way to way to bring more people to the grounds,” says Hmar.
It took a visionary like Hmar to organise a proper league and bring in a TV deal, which gave the MPL an initial injection of investment into Mizo football. How they take it from here is a major challenge.
However, listening to Hmar, one can be pretty sure he is up for it.
You can watch highlights of the semi-final match between Aizawl FC and Mizoram Police FC from the last edition of the MPL here.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)