By Nandakumar Marar
MUMBAI: Lalengmawia Ralte’s right-footed thunderbolt against Kerala Blasters FC was North East United FC’s last goal scored in the ISL 2021 league stage. It can arguably be this season’s best goal by NEUFC, a semi-finalist this time. The ball rocketed towards the target and went in off the crossbar. The goalpost shook on impact, goalkeeper Albino Gomes was shaken by the speed at which the ball travelled, crashed onto the horizontal above and rolled in before a reaction from him. Two semi-finals against ATK Mohun Bagan have seen exciting goals, but has still not diluted that goal’s impact.
This rocket-like strike from a former India U-17 World Cupper did more than just propel NEUFC forward in the 11-team competition. The midfielder from Mizoram left football followers, watching the TV replays from different angles, stunned with his finishing, quick thinking, angle of the shot and the surprise element. Teammates rushed to embrace him. Other coaches made inquiries and it will not be surprising if the 20-year-old accepts an offer from a team assured of a slot in next year’s AFC Champions League group stage.
The Mizo featured in the U-17 World Cupper group games under chief coach Luis Matos, is now a national senior team probable under Igor Stimac. Apuia, as Lalrengmawia is nicknamed, wore the NEUFC captain’s armband under former club coach, Gerard Nus. The player continues to be influential in current interim chief coach Khalid Jamil’s game plan for crucial matches. The 22- match appearances in ISL 2020-2021 includes one Player of Match award, 811 passes in all averaging 36.86 passes per game.
Four coaches from different nationalities (Mos from Portugal, Stimac from Croatia, Nus from Spain, Indian international-turned-club coach Jamil) agree on one point…. Lalengmawia is special, can be deployed in defensive or attacking roles and chases the ball tirelessly from box-to-box. Gifted with boundless energy, balance on the ball and peripheral vision, he is an expert at linking with teammates to keep the moves flowing. Defensive work for NEUFC includes 46 interceptions, 23 clearances, 1024 touches of the ball and a hot contender for ISL season seven’s Emerging Player award.
The winner will take home Rs 4 lakh and a trophy, besides joining a list of emerging talents in the past ISL seasons. Sandesh Jhingan (2014), Jeje Lalpekhlua (2015), Jerry Lalrinzuala (2016), Lalruathara (2017), Sahal Abdul Samad (2018), Sumit Rathi (2019) were handed out the Emerging Player honours earlier. Apuia is not an overnight sensation and started with Subroto Cup as a schoolboy, rose through the ranks in the Mizoram Premier League for Lunangmual FC (U-17) and India (U-16 onwards).
The 2018-29 stint for Indian Arrows in the I-League gave him a taste of senior team football as a member of the developmental team, created by the All india Football Federation to keep the U-17 World Cuppers together. Apuia was drafted into NEUFC last season, along with other youngsters and in just his second season, the energy and enterprise in the midfield got a place on the India senior probables under Stimac for a camp in Dubai and matches in the Gulf.
Ghana’s World Cup captain, Asaanoah Gyan, among NEUFC teammates in ISL 2019-20, made a huge impact on the young Mizo, whose ability to adapt his game helped strike an understanding this season with experienced midfielders Khassa Camara (France), Richardo Gallego (Uruguay). Lalengmawia is a prized asset for any coach and it will take a huge effort from NEUFC management to retain him for the next season. Two semi-final games against ATKMB did not result in any stunning goals from him, but the Mizo did his part in defensive and playmaking duties to leave a distinct mark.