Stanley Rozario has had three stints as a coach in the north-eastern region of India. In 2009, he joined Shillong Lajong and guided the club to the Federation Cup final where they lost to East Bengal in the tie-breakers. Two years later, he joined United Sikkim, and once again in 2019, he packed his bags for the hills to answer the calling from Aizawl FC.
He joined the People's Club in January when they were striving to fend off relegation and at the end of the season, they managed to finish on the seventh spot picking up 10 points from their last four matches. Notably, their late surge was propelled by Ansumana Kromah and a host of local Mizo players like Lalkhawpuimawia, Isak Vanlalruatfela, and Paul Ramfangzauva.
Rozario feels that the socio-cultural context of Mizoram is a major factor behind their success in football and sports in general. There is always a push to promote local talent amongst the management and the opportunities are accepted with both hands by the players who view sports as a means to break out of poverty.
"The lifestyle of the people in this region is a major factor (behind their success in sports). In Kolkata, Bengaluru and Goa, people have other alternative professions which will help them lead a luxurious life. But here, sports is the easiest way out to do that. Along with football, I would say boxing and archery are also well received by the people. But definitely, football remains the most popular.
"They know they have the potential and they have seen players like Renedy (Singh), Bhaichung (Bhutia), Mama (Shylo Malsawmtluanga), Gouramangi (Singh) who have done so well in life after proving themselves in football. So they first want to break into I-League and then to ISL to get better salary and benefits," explains the coach.
In this summer, five Aizawl FC players have jumped ship to Indian Super League (ISL) outfits. Academy graduate Jonathan and Rochharzela have joined NorthEast United, Vanruatfela and Ramfangzauva have joined Odisha FC, whereas Joe Zoherliana has been signed by Bengaluru FC. Rozario feels that this is no mean feat for the club and it further encourages other young aspirants to take the sport more seriously.
"This was the first time that so many players from Aizawl FC shifted to ISL in one season. So this is a huge achievement for the club. The last time we saw this kind of exodus was when Aizawl became I-League champions and East Bengal, Mohun Bagan roped in the key players of that squad. I feel proud to have moulded them during the season. They are talented and determined and if they are groomed well, they can settle well in ISL."
The 60-year-old tactician also opines that the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) also plays an important role in shaping the local footballers for the grander stages. It is a fiercely fought competition where clubs like Chanmari, Chhinga Veng field competitive squads which give Aizawl a run for their money.
"After CFL (Calcutta Football League), I consider the MPL as the most competitive local football league in India. It is a festival of local talents. Although two foreigners are allowed, most teams do not want to spend so much on them and they build their squads with the academy players. The players also remain motivated as they want to prove themselves in front of their own people and especially against Aizawl so that they are picked by us and they can then play in I-League.
"To put things into perspective, Aizawl had 26 Mizo players in their ranks in the previous season. This means that apart from the six foreign players, all were Mizo players," stated Rozario.
After a lacklustre performance in the 2019-20 season in I-League, the coach has already set his eyes on the next edition. With a fresh contingent of promising youngsters coupled with four overseas players, he wants to Aizawl to once again become a force to reckon with. For that, he wants to start working as soon as the situation permits.
"Things could have been different if we had completed the season. We had five matches left and four of them were on our home turf. And it is well known how difficult it is to beat Aizawl at their home ground. Also, other teams like NEROCA, TRAU, Chennai City played two more matches than us, which helped them to finish above us.
"Nevertheless, I think it is time that we start preparing for the next season. The foreigners arrived late in the previous season. I am really looking forward to it (next season). Gokulam, East Bengal, have already started roping in players and if we get to recruit a few good foreigners then we will be a competitive team," hopes the former India national team assistant coach.