The Mizoram football team’s head coach and manager talk about the big win, their lives and and how they beat ill-health to emerge winners
When Mizoram’s soccer team pummelled Indian Railways 3-0 to win its maiden Santosh Trophy title, coach Vanlalthlanga and manager Lalbiakzuala couldn’t help but beam with pride. Football fans hailed Mizoram’s stunning win as a sunshine moment in Indian football. Few, however, knew about these two gentlemen and the heroic personal battles they had to fight to be present on the field — victories no less fantastic than the state’s triumph on the field.
The crowd that gave the winning team a grand welcome, coach Vanlalthlanga and manager Lalbiakzuala. Pic/Ropuia Photography
Vanlalthlanga is a difficult man to get hold of and understandably so. Fans thronged the local airport to give the Mizoram team a rousing welcome and the event was beamed live on a local channel. “I am very happy,” says Vanlalthlanga, over a troublesome telephone line. The coach grew up loving football, much like the rest of Mizoram, and was a champion in college.
He cheerfully hops from one topic to another, like the Mizoram Premier League and the state’s attempts to promote the game. A change in demeanor happens only when he talks about an illness he recovered from years ago. He is not too keen to delve into the details of the illness itself, which was serious enough to send him to the Vellore-based Christian Medical College (CMC). The doctors were’t too hopeful of a recovery.
“I told them that if there is no hope of a recovery, I want to go back home,” recalls Vanlalthlanga. And he did. Soon, locals started gathering around his house — a courtesy they extended to those who are fatally ill and dying. “I started praying,” he says, adding that he continued to coach his then team during several matches. “I was very weak.
I would lead training sessions for a few hours in the morning and evening, but had to take rest in between,” he adds. His recovery astounded doctors. “When I went back to Vellore, the doctor who looked at my case history said my case made him believe a bit more in God,” says Vanlalthlanga. It was then that he decided to dedicate his life to the game.
Amazing as it may sound, Vanlalthlanga is not the only team member to have beaten fate. When Lalbiakzuala was first told he was to manage the team, his reaction was instantaneous. “I started practicing how to lift the trophy,” he laughs. Since June 2013, he has been suffering from a kidney ailment that requires a visit to the hospital occasionally.
The 53-year-old, however, refuses to dwell on the issue and points out that he could easily manage his diet during matches as he had a cook. “Sometimes, there are minor difficulties, but my main interest is football,” he adds. And displaying some of that spirit that probably led the team to the victory, Lalbiakzuala sums up his condition in three simple words - “I am okay”.