In 2015, trials for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup squad took place in Mizoram. Lalengmawia, aka Apuia, the Indian Super League’s (ISL’s) reigning Emerging Player of the Year, had his class X board exams then. Having worked through adversity at their butcher’s shop in Aizawl to put their three children through an English medium school education, his parents asked Apuia to skip the trials and focus on his exams. At that time, a career in football seemed remote. He listened to them. But there would be another round of trials in Mizoram in January 2016. “When the trials happened again, I told them that I did what they asked the first time, so this time they must let me go for the trials,” Apuia says. He went for the trials, joined the AIFF Elite Academy in Goa, and eventually became the first Mizo player to feature in the U-17 World Cup for India.
Around three years later, on 30 November 2020, at the age of 20 years and 44 days, he became the youngest player ever to captain an ISL side when he led out NorthEast United against FC Goa. He won the man of the match in that game. Later that season, it was his stunning strike from distance against Kerala Blasters that helped NorthEast seal only their second shot at the semifinal in 7 ISL seasons. And on 25 March this year, he made his debut for the Indian senior team against Oman in a friendly, coming on at half-time and changing the game’s momentum. Apuia’s rise in Indian football has been nothing short of meteoric.
India’s head coach Igor Stimac has asked fans and the media to not expect too much from the youngster yet, to control the hype. But for a nation hungry for its next football idol after Sunil Chhetri, it is difficult to not get excited about Apuia.
The defensive midfielder started out as a striker, until one day, having joined a new school, he was forced to play in midfield since taller seniors were playing up front. “I think it was in class IX and I was just a small guy in a new school. So I played in midfield, did well, and carried on from there,” he says.
It is in midfield that Apuia has thrived. Having played a couple of seasons with the Indian Arrows after the U-17 World Cup, Apuia was signed by NorthEast United in 2019 and became an integral part of their dream run to the semis in the 2020-21 season. He played every game, making 93 tackles, 46 interceptions and 23 blocks. He attempted 811 passes and got 74.47% of them right, and touched the ball more than a thousand times. But bare statistics hardly give the full picture of a player who is a joy to watch. His ability to get out of tight situations with smooth footwork and his positioning and confidence on the ball consistently make him stand out in the field. Apuia is adept in finding pockets of space and he’s always demanding the ball, looking to direct play. Against Oman, with India struggling to retain possession, his introduction triggered a sea-change: as if his mere presence made those around him more confident with keeping the ball. In the 45 minutes he played, he registered a 90% passing accuracy, made four ball recoveries and four interceptions. India drew the match 1-1.
“Before coming on, I was asked to keep the ball and play without fear. I felt the change on the pitch too. Everyone was talking to me. Asking me to take the ball, telling me we need to do something different. So I felt that trust from my teammates and I am confident with the trust they have in me. That is what I want them to feel. That they can move and I can help them keep the ball and slow the game down. Because the midfield can’t be chasing the ball all the time,” he says.
But it’s not just the passing and movement. Apuia can be feisty competitor too. He was booked for a challenge from behind against Oman, but maintains that he got the ball. However, he has shed indiscipline and impetuousness from his game, probably unlike the footballer who inspired him to wear No. 45 on his jersey, Italy’s talented but controversial Mario Balotelli. “When I look at Balotelli, I see his style on the ball. How cool he is. He hardly uses power, goes for placement. Yes, he could do better with discipline but sometimes it is good to be naughty to play at the top level.”
He plays like he has lived, comfortable with shouldering responsibilities at a young age. While there have been days when his parents didn’t have money for new clothes, they still wouldn’t deny him and his older brother football boots. “I need to sacrifice myself because I am now the primary earner for the family. I can’t do whatever I like at my age, but I feel proud of myself that I take care of them because they are the ones who worked so hard for me to get here. This keeps me going on the pitch too. Sacrifice is important in any sport: sleeping, waking, eating right, working hard and doing what I don’t like doing. All this makes me a better player and person,” he says.
His biggest sacrifice for football, says Apuia, is missing spending Christmas with his family. At times, Apuia talks like someone way older than his 20 years. He is aware of most current affairs, prefers podcasts and YouTube lectures over Netflix, and wants to major in history for his Bachelor of Arts degree. During his days at Indian Arrows, he and the team’s former video analyst Prateek Kamble would play chess in the hotel lobby, games so intense that staff and players would gather around to watch.
Before being picked for AIFF Elite Academy—which has also produced players like Anirudha Thapa, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Bengaluru’s breakout midfielder Suresh Singh—Apuia spent a couple of years at the Regional Sports Training Centre football academy in Kolasib in Mizoram. There, he trained under HC Zarzoliana, who has coached teams in the Mizoram Premier League, Subroto Cup, and the Santosh Trophy. Zarzoliana, 36, is clear that he knew that Apuia was a special talent. “When I saw him for the first time, he was the smallest among the lot. But he was brilliant. The way he struck the ball was clean. His technique was up there. And he wasn’t good at just football. Even in exams, he would get first position. In every other sport at the academy, he was the champion. I doubted he would make it given his size, and told him to consider a conventional career as well. But he’s a very tough guy. A survivor. And he made it in football,” he says.
Apuia—which in Mizo means something that will grow—worked hard in the gym to get physically stronger. Now 5’8”, he has enough time to put on more muscle and physically impose himself in matches. He is also young enough to hope to play abroad, something he unabashedly admits to.
“It is the ultimate dream for most footballers, playing at a level as high as possible. If there is a chance, then I would be willing to play abroad. And I would sacrifice some playing time as well to experience this because sometimes just training at an exceptional level can teach you different things,” he says.
Apuia seems to effortlessly handle the attention he’s getting after a remarkable season. He is typical of a new breed of Indian footballers who seem less bothered by the burden of history, of past glories or heartbreak. He is a part of a generation of players, alongside Akash Mishra and Suresh Singh, who insist on wanting to play with the ball despite the technical difficulties involved and the steep learning curve that comes with that tactic. Apuia is unfazed. A metronome on the pitch, and a mature thinker off it, he is poised to become the fulcrum for club and country for a long time.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.