It's still party time in Mizoram. And you wouldn't blame them.
It's been a week since the tiny state from north-east India created history by lifting their maiden Santosh Trophy in Kolkata, but the secretary of the Mizoram Football Association, Lalnghinglova Hmar, still can't stop smiling. You wouldn't blame him.
"The players are the talk of the town. They're the big stars now," Hmar told dna here on Saturday. "The semifinals and final were televised, so everybody was watching it. It was just like a cricket World Cup final in our state. Whenever the team scored, there was a huge noise all across the state, just like (Sachin) Tendulkar hitting a six. When Zico (Zoremsanga, Mizoram captain) scored a goal, the people were shouting louder than when Tendulkar hits a six. It was very, very big. People celebrated, and we had a big felicitation when the team came back from Kolkata. The airport was packed, and there was a grand celebration at the main ground."
Clearly, their success story has caught the eye of football lovers the world over, with even Jerome Champagne, the FIFA presidential hopeful, giving Mizoram's example of developing football the right way – from the scratch. And the man behind it, Hmar, said it was three simple points he executed when he became secretary three years ago that has made them India's best today – start a football league for their players to play in, educate referees, and improve the quality of coaches.
"I always believed that Mizoram had the talent to be the champions of India but we did not have any planning to back it up. So we, as a team, worked very hard on these three aspects. We then started the Mizoram Premier League, due to which people started to know the players and the league has been a success only in its second season. The Santosh Trophy triumph is a direct result of that. And of course, the government did a great job of installing three artificial turfs. All these things culminated in the triumph," he said.
Yes, the players needed the MPL, for there is no club representing Mizoram in the I-League. Shillong Lajong FC and Rangdajied United FC, the only two clubs from the north-east in the country's premier league, are based in Shillong. And though there are about 20 players from Mizoram playing in the league, the state is desperate to break the barrier and take the I-League plunge.
"I-League is our aim," Hmar said. "We started the MPL with the objective that Mizoram should go into the I-League. But building an I-League team needs financial backing and the right kind of people behind it. There is a lot of thinking and expertise needed."
Hmar hopes that the Santosh Trophy triumph manages to get the required moolah and sponsors.
"I-League teams are now spending about Rs5-6 crore. I don't think anyone in Mizoram can spend Rs 2 crore a year on a football team. But with the Santosh Trophy win, we hope to receive some financial backing, some investors. I know we have the potential to get to the I-League, but I don't know if we have the backing for the talent," he added.
Indeed, there seems to be no dearth of football talent in Mizoram. All that the players need is that backing — as Hmar put it — for their careers to go to the next level. But for now, they're only too happy to bask in their Santosh Trophy glory.
"In some sense, these players are not professional footballers, because they're not in the I-League. So for them, they had nothing else to achieve. Maybe in the future they will play in the I-league or even for clubs outside the country. But for the moment, they have won the biggest tournament, and they're feeling great," Hmar said.
The party doesn't look like stopping any time soon. Again, you wouldn't blame them.