Aizawl: In many ways, the story of Mizoram is the story of Shylo Malsawmtluanga, known here as ‘Mama’ (little boy).
This tiny state in the furthest corner of the northeast developed its identity of being a football powerhouse over the two decades that the little boy grew up in the heart of Indian football, showing his people the way into the mainland.
“If you search for Mizoram on the internet, no news results will show up. But if you search for Mizoram football, there will be. Not many tourists come here either, a few come for football-related reasons,” said Tetea Hmar, the football administrator who is known as the father of Mizo football.
“One of the reasons why football is so popular here could be that it was a sport introduced here by western people. The religion, lifestyle, culture, dress are all very ‘western’ here,” he added.
What he left unsaid is that the state shows few visible cultural links with the rest of the country. From ubiquitous consumer products like Korean noodle brands and Air Jordan sneakers to traffic discipline that seems to be lifted from a utopia, being in Mizoram rarely feels like being in India.
And this is the precise cultural gap which Mama helped bridge. In becoming entrenched into the Indian football ecosystem, he probably did more for Mizoram’s national integration than any politician ever could.
The recently retired Lalrindika Ralte, one of the footballers who followed in Mama’s footsteps in the 2010s, said, “I loved watching Zinedine Zidane when I was young, but my real inspiration was Mama. He showed us all the way.”
Having hung up his boots a few years ago, Mama, now 38, spends most of his time at the sports shop he has set up in the state capital.
He remembers how his mother cried when he, the youngest of five children, left home at the age of 14 to venture into Indian football. Now he wishes to make up for the lost years of not staying at home.
Aizawl FC are among those who are patrons of Mama’s sports store in the capital city.
But this year, Mama is back at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, where he played his last professional match – for Aizawl FC – five years ago. He is there to keep a watchful eye on his daughter, a defensive midfielder in the U-13 Naupang League, a grassroots football league run by Reliance Foundation and the Mizoram Football Association (MFA).
“I needed to look after my family because my father passed away suddenly,” Mama tells The Bridge on the sidelines of his daughter’s match.
“I ventured into formal coaching briefly, I did the AIFF D-license course and coached Chanmari FC (one of the popular Aizawl clubs) for a few months, but left soon as my family needed me more,” he says.
His daughter April Lalruattluangi, the only girl in the ‘MFA A’ team, meanwhile puts her body on the line to stop an attack. Roars from enthusiastic parents ring around the stadium. Mama is less expressive than the other parents, but he shows a glimpse of that familiar smile which enchanted Kolkata crowds in the 2000s.
“I’m trying to build her into a solid defensive midfielder. She needs to use her body to hold the line of defence. Playing against boys is challenging, but she has always been up to it,” he says.
April does not make the dazzling runs on the flanks her father was famous for, nor does she attempt his trademark long rangers. But she shows a sense of positioning and defensive stability even Mama at his peak would have been proud of.
“I would love to play like my father, but attacking is not my thing,” she says after the match.
April spent her earliest years in Kolkata, being present when Mama was in his final stint with East Bengal. It was then that she played her first match, with her father and his mates from back home – including Lalrindika Ralte and Jeje Lalpekhlua.
“I started to love football when I was around 7 and I saw my dad playing with his friends. That inspired me to start playing. Watching Lionel Messi also inspired me,” she said.
“My parents scold me when I play at home and break things… The Naupang League is a good opportunity, I’ve never been uncomfortable playing with boys,” she added.
Mama playing with his daughter over the years – at home and outside.
April is among the first batch of children from Mizoram who can hope to break into the mainstream Indian football ecosystem without having to travel away from home. Junior football tournaments had existed here before, but the Naupang League has brought about a new sense of professionalism around football training at all age levels.
“Mama was the first Mizo professional footballer, after him there were some others. But they all graduated from academies outside the state. It is only now that the thinking is changing. There can be a future in football even if you stay here,” said Tetea Hmar.
“The earlier pathway was without systematic training. A few made it on the basis of raw talent, but what has changed now is the intensity and professionalism around training. By the time this generation of youngsters reach their 20s, those who are fortunate to be part of the Naupang League will have much more focus and competitive spirit,” he said.
In playing his role as the bridge between Mizoram and the rest of India, Mama might have lost out on years at home. But it can be assumed he will not have to part with his daughter any time soon for the same reasons.
In many ways, the story of Mizoram is the story of Mama; and in many ways, the story of the newfound hope in Mizoram’s future is the story of Mama’s daughter.