He doesn't say a lot. Earlier, it was because he didn’t know Hindi and English. Now, because he doesn’t believe in saying something unless it's worth saying.
As he enters the lobby of the Palladium hotel in Mumbai, he is greeted by a number of people. There is a respect, no -- not fear, in the way they shake his hands. He can be stubborn about many things — including his position on the right wing. At just 5’6” — you may say he is diminutive — but he has an aura.
His eyes are the droopy sort, but he’s fit, has unending stamina — his Delhi Dynamos jacket clinging to his muscles, his calves are massive, he looks you in the eye when he talks. And he is God fearing.
He used his profession to make enough money to shift his whole family from their village to Aizawl.
He has a big house there, two cars — a Hyundai i10 and a Skoda. But his most important achievement is that he opened the doors for footballers from Mizoram to leave their state and flood the sport in India.
Vito meant life-giver, Malsawmtluanga means ‘being put by God on the path to succeed’. Vito was better known as Don, Malsawmtluanga is better known as Mama. Both have been dubbed Godfathers — one is fictional, the other is real.
So you’re the Godfather of Mizo footballers? “No, no, no... I’m just Mama,” Shylo Malsawmtluanga told Firstpost in Mumbai.
But you’re treated like a Godfather in Mizoram? “Well, when I walk on the roads, people come to me, they take photos, they ask me when I’m playing next. Papers have transfer rumours about me. Yea, it’s nice to be loved like that.”
But come on, you’re a legend... “No, no... I was just the first to leave Mizoram, become a professional player and to play for so many clubs in India. This was an inspiration to others. I’m aware of the examples I continually set. It’s not pressure, but it’s being aware of your responsibilities,” he sidesteps calling himself a legend — he’s good at it — he’s been doing it for East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Prayag United, Salgaocar, India and now Delhi Dynamos for far too long.
At 30, Shylo has achieved a lot. He’s won two NFL titles and the prestigious ASEAN Cup in 2003. He has also won the Federation Cup, Durand Cup, IFA Shield and Super Cup.
Any big name from Mizoram — whether it is Lalrindika Ralte (Mumbai City FC) or Jeje Lalpekhlua (Chennaiyin FC) — all followed in his footsteps.
But it hasn’t come easy: “There was a huge language barrier when I moved away from Mizoram. I would secretly cry at the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur. But I told myself that football is all I have to back myself up,” he said.
In Mizoram, they used to see his interviews and read about him scoring for East Bengal. It gave all those watching, a chance to dream. Mizoram is perhaps the most picturesque of all the states in the Northeast but it is also one that the rest of India knows little about. The predominant religion is Christianity. Shops shut by 6 pm. There are no caste distinctions either.
But it also means that in a certain sense, it is cut-off from the rest of India. There... yet not something our eyes wander to freely. The isolation is not an easy gap to bridge but Shylo gave them hope.
“He is an inspiration. We used to see his interviews on TV and read about him scoring goals. That is when we thought that we can make it too. We have to leave the state to get recognized in the rest of India,” Ralte tells us in Goa. He, like Shylo, plays on the wing – and at just 22, has played 12 times for India already.
There’s an emotional blog on Feverpitch written by Lalramenga Hmar, where he compares his problems to the ones Shylo faced early in his career.
We had our examinations, and I maintained a steady record of utter malfunction. I can no longer be sure which magazine it was, but I think it was the ‘Lengzem’ monthly which my father had brought with him to show me. It had a picture of a Shylo offering a prayer of gratitude to God after having scored in the Kolkata Derby. I was won over when I read about how he fought solitude and isolation with determination and pure courage. I immediately began to find new hope and fortitude in myself, traits I never knew I had in me, and these traits wrapped me up entirely and sparked in me a fire that would never burn out.
Hmar went onto become the secretary of the Mizoram Football Association – and laid the master plan that led the state to their first Santosh Trophy win last year.
The only strange fact about Shylo’s career is the number of India caps he has won – only three. He doesn’t want to blame anyone, but he agrees that there were times he felt he was unfairly not picked in teams he has represented.
“It has happened, yes. But these things should not bother you. You have to let your football do the talking.”
Doubt, he says, is not in his dictionary. Like many who make it big in their professions, he always knew what he wanted to do. His parents, who worked in paddy fields, never stopped him.
“I was always a good kid. I worked hard, I was okay in my studies. I’ve always respected my coaches and their decisions,” Shylo says, as if to stress on the fact that there’s no bad-boy-footballer in him. There’s no giddiness of stardom – even when he plays, you will see him constantly track back to help his defenders.
The only time he did speak a little sternly was when he recalled those who questioned his capabilities and his conviction.
“In school when they ask you to stand up and say what you wanted to become – I always said ‘professional footballer’. They used to laugh at me. Now, they respect me.”
Unlike the Godfather, who would relax on his leather chair and follow up those lines with a veiled threat, Shylo smiles – the lines near his eyes are comforting, rather than menacing.
Mama is the Godfather of Mizo footballers – but he’s a very nice guy.