‘I will be there at 7 am tomorrow, sharp,” said the voice on the other end. Firm, but not in an authoritarian way, and courteous, albeit with enough emphasis on ‘sharp’ to convey that here, in Mizoram, the word does hold significance.
It was followed by an address, which, upon showing at the reception, we were informed of a 6-kilometre uphill ride from our hotel at Zarkawt. An auxiliary bit followed – reliance on bike taxis, which were available a dime a dozen in these hills, yet always adhering to the stringent guidelines of mountain aesthetics, will be essential.
Our destination was Tlangnuam, a tiny town in Aizawl. Or, to be more specific, a football ground in Tlangnuam, wherein, as we were informed by at least three different sources since stepping foot in Mizoram, the nation’s next batch of footballing stars is being produced.
At 6:50 am, we were met with a realisation. The hills did open up to make room for a field, but it was not lush green in synchronisation with the neighbouring mass of frondescence. Rather, it was an insipid brown ground, of clay and dirt.
But try conveying that to those occupying the field – aspiring footballers, who had all but a couple of things in common – backgrounds, that were ever so humble, and dreams, that were ever so big.
Keeping the bunch hard at work were a couple of coaches, but neither matched the WhatsApp display picture of the person we spoke to, a sleep ago. As it turned out, they were assistants, getting the players ready for what will be a tedious session with the head coach.
Ten minutes later, precisely at the time he had quoted, the head coach arrived. Lalsangzuala Hmar, who is known here in the hills, and beyond, by his noms de plume – ‘Sir Sanga’ for the footballers, and ‘Mizoram’s best coach’ for the football administrators.
Sanga’s list of accolades is a prolonged one. Mizoram Premier League, MFA Super Cup, Independence Day Cup – name any intra-state competition, and he will show you the respective silverware. Beyond that, he had also taken Mizoram to the semi-finals of Santosh Trophy on a couple of occasions.
The common consensus among football enthusiasts in Mizoram suggests, had he not been adamant about not leaving the state, he would have been regarded as one of India’s more acclaimed coaches. Yet, there he was, amid the clay and dirt, training youngsters of Chawnpui FC, as they prepare to explore uncharted territories, having won the Mizoram division of the Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL).
A Father Figure in Football
The likes of Puitea and Jerry Mawihmingthanga, who are now household names, representing renowned teams in the nation’s apex league (Indian Super League), started their journey under Sanga’s stewardship.
Fame and fortune might have been a product of their talent, but on days they are not playing or touring, the students prefer returning to Aizawl, and reminiscing the days gone by with their master.
When The Quint asked Puitea about his childhood coach, the ISL-winning midfielder had only great things to say.
For me, he is the father of my football life. He has changed my life. When I was just eighteen years old, he believed in me and made me the assistant captain of the team. It was amazing. I feel proud of him, and I just want to thank him for teaching me everything about football. It is because of him that I can play in the ISL now.Puitea, ATK Mohun Bagan footballer
Tales, Tête-à-Tête and Tea
Finding out more about his journey from Sanga himself topped the agenda list, but what followed next were not questions and answers, but the synchronised execution of escape plans.
Albeit sunny only a minute ago, the sky put on a show to exhibit all shades of grey – light first, then dim, and finally, slate. Before anyone could react, there was a downpour, amid unheard curses for not carrying an umbrella.
As he has done so often for the Mizo kids, Sanga donned his saviour’s cape.
“It will get even uglier soon. Let’s quickly rush to my place on my scooter, and we can sit for a cup of steaming chai and questions.”
Another narrow, uphill road, followed by a fleet of spiralled stairs adorned with potted plants, led to the coach’s house. Whilst waiting for the tea, Sanga shared tales from his initial days.
I was born in Manipur. We used to love playing in Manipur, but I come from a tribal background, while the sport was restricted to the Manipuris. We didn’t get any opportunities – for state representation, as well as district representation.Sanga, football coach
Leaving Is Easy, Staying Isn’t
Breakfast was served with hugs from his children, resembling a happy family for an outsider. In stark contrast, however, Sanga revealed how familial bonds weren’t as strong, when he used to be a kid.
“I come from a poor family. My father is a farmer, and my mother is a housewife. They wanted me to study, and not get into football, but I didn’t listen to them. Even now, after ten years in coaching, I don’t know whether my father supports my career decision.”
Sanga’s dream of becoming a professional footballer met its conclusion sooner than expected, with a knee injury whilst at Pune FC cutting his journey short. Yet, finding the sport as enticing as ever before, he turned to coaching.
Although he has worked with most of Mizoram’s reputed teams, Sanga has never left the state.
'Why?’ we enquired.
I have received offers from Kolkata, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, but I chose not to leave Mizoram because of the lack of coaches here. When I look at my Mizo players, I know well that there is no dearth of talent, but they cannot succeed without good coaches. When we will have enough active coaches in Mizoram, and I will be able to say that most of my students have made it to the I-League or ISL, I will consider leaving. But now, I need to be fully focused on developing my Mizo players, and nothing else.Sanga, football coach
Gaining Reliance and Trust
An AFC B License holder, Sanga has struggled to arrange means to fund an A License coaching degree. That, however, does not stop him from organising a residential programme for his mentees.
“I am bringing players from as far as 200 kilometres away from Aizawl, and enrolling them in my residential programme,” he says.
Hinting at the growing, and worrying inclination of youth towards drugs, Sanga further adds “The means to break a young man are plenty. So, whenever I find kids who love football, I bring them here. We need to care for them, offer guidance, and also show their parents how we are providing a platform.”
With this team shining bright in the RFDL, Sanga shed light on how the journey started.
"When the RFDL was announced, I requested Chawnpui FC's president to get us enrolled in the competition. It is a very important tournament for us, because my players are coming from humble backgrounds. They simply don't have the means to go to Kolkata, Bengaluru or Kerala for training. But now, with this tournament, they can rub shoulders against teams from those place and know where they stand," he said.
As one of those players residing at Sanga’s complex, FC Lalhmunmawia dropped us back to the hotel, we were informed of how everyone in Mizoram will vouch for the coach’s brilliance – both on humanitarian, and footballing grounds.
Over the next couple of days, travelling to various players’ houses made the affection evident, with the youngsters, alongside their families, trusting the coach unconditionally.
Whilst we prepared to leave, carrying a batch of freshly prepared lemonade that one of the players’ family had gifted, Sanga offered a list of names – of his academy’s current brightest prospects. A statement followed.
“Hopefully, next time you come here, these players will be famous like Puitea, and we will talk about the next group of youngsters. You know where to find me – here in Aizawl, among my Mizo hills, like always.”