Mizoram erupted in joy on Sunday evening, as the state football team created history by lifting the Santosh Trophy for the first time in its history after beating Railways 3-0 in the final game in Siliguri. The win marked an incredible start to the year for Mizoram, who have now won two major tournaments in 2014, having lifted the Dr. T Ao Memorial Trophy less than a month back. The tiny North Eastern state, which has produced some top quality during the last few years, displayed sheer class throughout the tournament as they brushed aside each and every challenge to their title ambitions to become the national champions, that too with an absolutely perfect record.
With the National Football Championships being held in two stages, the zonal qualifiers and the final rounds, Mizoram’s capital city Aizawl hosted the North Eastern zonal games. Placed in Group A alongside heavyweights Manipur, the hosts began their campaign against Nagaland. Skipper Zico opened the scoring in the 19th minute for Mizoram, and the home side, egged on by a capacity crowd at the Lammual Stadium in Aizawl, didn’t look back from there, scoring two more to cruise to a comfortable win. Up next against Arunachal Pradesh, the Mizos showed no mercy as they dished out an impressive performance to win 5-0 against the minnows, with inspirational captain Zico twice on the scoresheet this time around. The win meant that the stage was set for a deciding clash against Manipur in the final group game. With Manipur holding a better goal difference before the game, a draw would not have been enough for Mizoram to progress. Backed by a jam-packed Lammual, things, however, didn’t seem to be going right for the hosts, as they failed to get past the Manipuri defence until the 80th minute. Then in the 82nd minute, Laldanmawia’s shot went into the back of the Manipuri net, and the Lammual erupted in ecstasy. As Manipur threw players forward, there was still time for another Mizoram goal, as Zico added to his goal tally with a neat finish in the last minute of stoppage time, all but confirming his side’s progress into the final rounds. As it turned out, there was no stopping Mizoram from here.
In between the qualifying and final rounds, Mizoram emerged victorious in the prestigious Dr. T Ao Memorial Football Tournament, an eight-team North East India affair, thus establishing their credentials as the favorites for the Santosh Trophy title. In the main rounds of the country’s premier inter-state tournament, Mizoram, placed in Group A, started their campaign with a 3-1 victory over former champions Kerala, with second half goals from Lalbiaktlua, Zico and Lalrinpuia enough to hand them 3 points from the game. The Mizo side then came up against a gritty Maharastra team; the former’s offensive superiority, however, eventually saw them prevail as 2-0 winners, with Lalnunmawia and Lalfakzuala on the scoresheet. The win over Maharastra was then followed up with a dominant performance against a Services side, with the final score reading 4-1 in Mizoram’s favour. Zico was again one of the scorers as Services’ defensive frailties were laid bare by Mizoram during the game. The win effectively sealed their place in the semi-final of the tournament. The final group game, an inconsequential encounter, saw Mizoram edge past Uttarakhand by 2 goals to 1, with Lalnunmawia and Lalrinmuana scoring for the Mizos.
The semi-final encounter against Tamil Nadu was one of the harder games Mizoram fared in during the tournament. The Tamil side took the lead just before the break, and it all seemed to be going wrong for the North Eastern state as they emerged from the tunnel for the second half. Substitute David Lalrinmuana, however, restored parity on the hour mark, and the Mizos dominated the game from hereon. With the game moving into extra-time, Tamil Nadu seemed no match to Mizoram’s exuberance, and the latter gradually wore out the Tamilians. Zico gave Mizoram the lead in the 94th minute, and Lalrinpuia finished it off with an excellent finish right at the death to set up a final against Railways. In the title-deciding tie, Mizoram played the patient game, and were rewarded with a goal in the 43rd minute, courtesy of forward Zico, after a well-knit move from the midfield. With Railways failing to create too many chances, Mizoram dominated the second half of the final, with Zico keeping his composure to again score in the 61st minute, this time from a one-on-one situation with the keeper. Railways never really got a hold of the game, and Lalrinpuia finished things off with a well-taken goal in stoppage time, sparking off celebrations in Mizoram.
Whether it was Ricky’s overlapping runs, or David’s impressive dead-ball skills, or Zico scoring goals for fun, Mizoram definitely had the goods this term, in terms of the talent available in the team. They were the complete package. H Vanlalthangla and his coaching team too deserve credit for getting the best out of the players. While the individual brilliance of the likes of Zico did help, Mizoram were brilliant altogether as a team. Lalsawmkima, Lalrinmuana, Laldanmawia, Lalfakzuala, Lalbiaktlua, Ronald, Lalrinpuia, etc. all played their parts throughout the tournament, and the coach definitely did more than a fine job. Mizoram’s triumph will now come as a huge boost to the stakeholders of Mizoram football, who have done tremendous work in recent years to bring the state to its current position. The Santosh Trophy results certainly prove that Mizoram have overtaken quite a few states in terms of the quality of players being produced. With the highly commendable grassroots development programs undertaken in the state, and the success of the Mizoram Premier League, combined with the sheer passion for the sport among the Mizos, there is no doubt that the Mizos are here to stay in the long run. Indian football fans could perhaps expect a Mizo club in the I-League in the not-so-distant future.