Aizawl brace for 'biggest match' in freezing Isfahan
Paulo Meneses is a very tired man. The coach of the Aizawl FC football team is currently in Isfahan where his side will be playing Zob Ahan Esfahan FC in a qualifying playoff of the AFC Champions League. It's bitterly cold, less than two degrees below freezing, in this central Iranian city and Meneses has had a long journey.
His trip began after Aizawl's 1-1 draw on January 25 against Mohun Bagan in the I-League. The team travelled to Delhi where they endured a two-day wait in order to get their visas for Iran. A red-eye flight to Istanbul was followed by a day-long stopover in Turkey before they could get a connecting flight to Isfahan. They finally checked into their hotel at 3am on Monday.
"We haven't had a good night's sleep since the night before our last match," groans Meneses over the phone. He is in fact wearier than anyone else in his squad who crashed onto their beds almost instantly. "After I reached the hotel, I opened my laptop. I wanted to go through the notes that I had prepared on Zob Ahan. So I was up for another two hours."
Meneses' insistence on the revision was understandable. Zob Ahan is by far the toughest team his side will have played, perhaps ever in Aizawl's history. "Even if we had the best budget in the I-League it would still be hard to compete because this [Zob Ahan] is a very good team," says coach Meneses. The hosts, currently third in the Iran league, are a former runner-up in the Asian Champions League (in 2010).
Aizawl, who qualified for the ACL playoffs on the basis of their fairytale run to the I-League title last season, have meanwhile found the going a lot harder this time around. This would have been a difficult match even if Aizawl were dealt the best cards, and it's clear that the Mizo club doesn't hold the best hand this season.
Theirs is an entirely new-look squad from the one that was I-League champions after coach Khalid Jamil and 13 players were lured away by I-League and ISL clubs with deeper pockets. The current side has struggled to match the achievements of the previous batch. The fact that they weren't able to win the local Mizo Premier League was perhaps a sign of things to come. As it stands, Aizawl is currently sixth in the I-League with 15 points from 10 games.
The scheduling of the I-League and the need to compete in the local, national and now international fixtures have meant that fatigue would have set in. Indeed, Aizawl will have to play an I-League game on February 3, just four days after what is expected to be a difficult match in Isfahan.
Even bureaucratic decision-making seems to have gone against the luckless Aizawl. Following the injury to Nigerian defender Kareem Omalaja Nurain, replacement Leonce Dodoz wasn't able to get his visa on time. This means Aizawl will be travelling with just three foreigners -- Masih Saighani (Afghanistan), Alfred Jaryan (Liberia) and Andrei Ionescu (Romania) -- in their contingent.
And when they finally made their way to the Foolad Shahr stadium after managing a quick nap, Aizawl found they weren't even able to train. "There was some snow on the main pitch, so we decided to do a shorter practice session on a side pitch," says Meneses.
The Aizawl management is still looking at the positives. "Everything is new for us," says team manager Hmingthan Sanga. "In this squad only [midfielder] Shylo Mama has ever played in an Asian Club match. It is the biggest match we have ever played. Playing against a team like Zob Ahan is a very big challenge and it is very big moment not just for the club but for Mizoram."
Back in Aizawl, the mood is more contemplative. "You don't see the same enthusiasm in the streets as you did last year when we won the I-League," says Aizawl-based football journalist Lalthanszama Vanchhawng (who is better known by his nickname, Zama). This is partly due to the fact that the team is seen as lacking the same quality as it had last year. "The people see many of our players from the champion team playing for other clubs. They find it difficult to recognize the team," he says. Attendances have fallen from an average of 6,943 last season to 4,837 this time around.
Yet the significance of competing in their first continental tournament isn't lost on Zama. "The 2014 Santosh Trophy was the first time Mizoram ever won a tournament," he says. "When Aizawl FC first competed in the second division in 2012, we knew that in time we would achieve success in football, but we didn't realise it would come so fast. To compete in Iran is a very big step but it has come very unexpectedly and that's why people aren't expressing much. Regardless what happens in Iran the result is still a milestone for football here."
Coach Meneses says his side will be looking to make the most of their opportunity in Isfahan. "This is amazing for them," he says. "Biggest competition in Asia. Opportunity to enjoy. If they can perform, can be the first step for the future. If the players are inexperienced, this is a great chance for them to grow."
At practice, Meneses says he gave his players hope. "We are here to compete," he says. "Ultimately, we are playing football and in a football game many things can happen. The pressure is not on us, so we have to take whatever small chance we have."
Team manager Sanga concurs. "I know that people are saying that that we have almost no chance to go forward from here," he says. "But that's what they said last year about our chances in the I-League. And then we proved them wrong and won the tournament." Having done so once before, Aizawl FC will be hoping to pull of another miracle on Tuesday.