AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: The modern-day midfielder isn't just about good passing, playmaking and hard tackling. The ever-evolving game of football has demanded midfielders to convert themselves into tireless engines. Lalengmawia Ralte, better known as Apuia in the circuit, has been the definition of such a role in the Indian national team.
After a breakthrough 2020-21 campaign with NorthEast United FC, where he was named the Hero ISL Emerging Player of the Season, the Aizawl-born player, who learned his trade in All India Football Federation’s I-League side Indian Arrows, earned his first senior team call-up in March 2021 and made his debut in a 1-1 draw with Oman in a friendly.
Apuia quickly gained prominence for his high work rate, neat footwork and fine reading of the game, all very crucial aspects of a contemporary midfielder. Flexibility on the pitch, according to the 22-year-old, is a very important asset for a midfielder. While with his current club Mumbai City FC, he is licensed to operate a bit further up the pitch, with the Blue Tigers, he has usually been the deepest-lying midfielder, sitting just above the two centre-backs.
“If I'm the coach, I would play myself as a number six,” laughed Apuia. “But of course, it depends on what's the best for the team. I cannot just play wherever I want. The team is the most important thing. It doesn't matter if I’m playing as a number ten or a number eight, if the team wins, I'm always happy.”
It's his composure on the ball which stands out the most. Apuia always wants the ball, build attacks, find spaces and release it for teammates. When out of possession, he is again key in breaking up attacks, covering up spaces and teaming up with the defence. In such a role, he doesn't get many opportunities to go forward in attack, but when he does, he always wants to make them count.
“Sure, I want to get more goals and assists. But even if I don't get that, I always want to help my team in such a way that my teammates play better,” he said.
Speaking of teammates, Apuia is glad to have a number of his colleagues from the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup side who have graduated to the senior team alongside him, like Anwar Ali, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Jeakson Singh and Rahim Ali. That obviously helps in their chemistry on the pitch.
“It's always good to have players you know better in the team. It's not easy to transition from the U-17s to the senior team because playing here is much more difficult. But having played with each other a lot helps us in confidence. We are always ready to help and support each other,” shared Apuia.
"If there was no U-17 World Cup, there would be no Apuia. Because otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to play in the ISL and the senior national team as nobody would've heard about me," he said.
Apuia has since come a long way. He won his first international silverware in 2021 - the SAFF Championship in Maldives, where India beat Nepal 3-0 in the final. The Hero Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar next month, however, will be his first assignment with the Blue Tigers since then as, unfortunately, injuries ruled him out of action in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers last year and, most recently, the Hero Tri-Nation in Imphal in March. Now, back in the camp, the midfielder knows he will have to fight for his place in the starting eleven again.
"I feel great to be back in the National Team. We did well in the Tri-Nation in Imphal, so it's going to be difficult for me to get my spot again. I need to give my best and enjoy the moment," he said.
The next seven months will be vital for the Indian team in preparation for the all-important AFC Asian Cup in Qatar next year. After the Hero Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship in June, the Blue Tigers will also participate in the King's Cup (Thailand) and Merdeka Cup (Malaysia) later this year. For Apuia, a second consecutive AFC Champions League campaign with Mumbai City will also pit him against the best in the continent, all of which will ultimately help him gear up for the biggest tournament of his young career so far.
"I think it's the first time the Indian team will have so many matches in a year. It will help us teammates in coordinating better on the pitch as we usually play fewer matches with the national team as compared to our clubs. As football is a team game, staying together is important. For example, if I'm playing with Chhangte, I need to know where he likes to make runs and the place where he wants the ball. The more I play with him, the better our understanding will be.
"We also need to be more focused than ever because there are more chances of getting injured when you're playing so many matches. So, we need to take good care of ourselves. The coach's philosophy and style of play will change according to the need in every game. It's not going to be an easy season, but I'm excited and really looking forward to it," Apuia concluded.