Aizawl and Leicester: From Relegation-Bound to Trophy Triumph
Leicester City and Aizawl FC’s triumphs were marked by underestimated talent, low budgets and gifted coaches.
2 May 2016 and 30 April 2017. These two dates, spread almost a year apart, will be etched in football history for recording the most unprecedented yet highly inspiring triumphs.
The former being when Leicester City FC clinched the most sought-after football league of the world – the English Premier League (EPL). The latter being when Aizawl FC, a football club from Mizoram, became the first club from the Northeast to lay hands on the domestic I-League trophy.
Difference in quality between English and Indian football put aside, there are a bevy of uncanny similarities in the successful journeys of the two teams, the almost-identical dates of triumph being just one of them.
The feats of both the clubs are of enormous significance.
While Leicester dealt a sharp blow to the long-standing hegemony of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United in the EPL, Aizawl underscored the immense contribution of the Northeast to football.
So what makes these two clubs so special and alike?
Here we briefly trace their journeys: From relegation-prone to towering trophy-winning clubs marked by underestimated talent, a measly budget and guidance under the tutelage of two gifted coaches.
A Stumbling Backdrop to Their Triumphs
Both Leicester City and Aizawl kicked-off their title-winning journey in top-flight domestic leagues carrying the tag of novices, as well as against the backdrop of poor showings in their respective preceding seasons.
Leicester got promoted from the second division to play in EPL 2014-15, where they finished 14th out of 20 teams. They avoided a bottom three relegation position only because of a sudden string in victories in the last few games – clinching crucial wins in seven of the last nine games that they played.
Aizawl FC’s first taste of top-level Indian club football was in the 2015-16 (preceding) season itself, with the performance being even poorer than Leicester – as they finished eighth out of nine teams, and were all set to be relegated to the lower division.
In fact, their participation in the recently concluded and title-winning 2016-17 season was by sheer luck, because Goan teams did not take part in the league owing to differences with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
And Then, Race to the Top
Coming to their respective seasons of triumph, both the sides showed an altogether new face.
Leicester’s victory was a domineering one, having clinched the coveted trophy with two games to spare and ultimately finishing with a 10-point lead over Arsenal.
The top star for the Leicester side was striker Jamie Vardy, who ended up netting 24 goals to become the joint second-highest scorer in the 2015-16 season alongside the much reputed Argentine Sergio Aguero playing for Manchester City. Vardy was rightfully accorded the ‘Premier League Player of the Season’ for his performance. Leicester also managed to keep 15 clean sheets in the season, second only to Arsenal. Another significant fact that contributed to Leicester’s success was a lack of injuries.
On the other hand, Aizawl’s I-League fate was hanging in suspense till the last minute of their last game against Shillong Lajong, which they eventually drew, after coming back from behind.
The team finished only a point above traditional heavyweights Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan, who would have clinched the title had Aizawl lost against Shillong. The team scored a total of 24 goals throughout the season of 18 matches, the highest scorer being Ivory Coast national Kamo Stephane Bayi with 7 goals to his credit.
The side brimmed with ample number of local Mizoram players.
Add to that the fact that one of their top performers, Mahmoud Al-Amna, is a Syrian national who seemed to have defied all odds to shine for the club.
The Coaches: Two Different Leagues, But Same Fate
Italian national Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager who led the team to Premier League victory, took charge of the club only just before the start of the season.
Khalid Jamil, who led Aizawl FC to the unprecedented I-League 2017 success story, was also brought in just prior to season’s inception. Both took over the reins of their new clubs coming on the back of sackings – Ranieri from the post of Greece international team manager in 2014, and Jamil from the post of Mumbai FC manager in 2016.
Money Never Mattered in Their Triumphs!
Both Leicester and Aizawl didn’t spend even close to what the respective heavyweights they competed against did.
In a report, BBC stressed on the measly amounts that were spent on Leicester players who eventually became the show-stoppers of the 2015-16 season – Jamie Vardy for a million pounds in 2012 and Riyad Mahrez for 4,00,000 pounds in 2014. To highlight the financial chasm between Leicester and the ‘big clubs’, consider what BBC said in its May 2016 article:
…Ranieri’s preferred starting XI cost an estimated 22 million pounds, less than a 10th of what is arguably big-spending Manchester City’s first-choice line-up.BBC report
With regard to Aizawl, there is no doubt that they were financially the least well-off. An interesting fact being cited now is how Aizawl’s total budget of around Rs 1.25 crore falls well short of their erstwhile contender Mohun Bagan’s expenditure on their star player – Haitian Sony Norde – at more than Rs 2 crore!
The Road Ahead For Aizawl…
The ongoing 2016-17 EPL season has been a damp squib for Leicester as they currently occupy 11th place on the table. Nevertheless, the club did manage to reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League – considered to be the pinnacle of European football. However, what came as a highly unfortunate shock was the sacking of Ranieri in February this year owing to the club’s poor showing in the season.
By some measures, Aizawl FC’s domestic league win seems more remarkable than that of Leicester’s, and we certainly hope that their momentum only becomes better going into the next season, sans the obstacles the English team has had to face.
However, a purely administrative-managerial roadblock has already plonked itself on the way of Aizawl’s road to further glory.
A purported merger between Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League threatens to alienate them on the basis of their finances. That would indeed be a ruthless blow for a team with great potential, enthusiasm and a veritable support base.
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