Courage under adversity comes easily to Lalengmawia (Apuia) Ralte. It has been a natural part of his game since the age of 13, when he suddenly found that being one of smallest boys in the U-17 football league in Mizoram would not save him from ankle-crunching tackles.
This courage forged in muddy pitches of Aizawl was on display in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, when he burst through Ghana’s defence to get India’s first shot on target of the match, introduced as a 78th minute substitute, his effort a surprise spark ending a point-less campaign. It is this same courage which has earned him the title of Northeast United FC captain this season, making the 20-year-old the youngest ever captain in the league.
“Apuia is a talented and local player. He is determined to become better in every game. I expect so much from him,” said Northeast United manager Gerard Nus, explaining the decision. Nus himself, at 35, is the youngest manager in the fray this season but said age is not a factor at all in his team.
Apuia (Mizo for ‘something that will grow bigger’), as Lalengmawia is called by teammates, said his friends and family are delighted he has been given this opportunity, but that being named captain has not changed his on-field role much.
“I prefer leading by example than to be vocal with instructions or encouragements. To be honest, my role has not changed much within the team. Northeast United has always had a very open culture. Young players have always been welcome to give inputs on the field as well as in team meetings,” he said.
Despite this, captaincy seems to have brought the best out of Apuia. He was named ‘Man of the Match’ on his captaincy debut, a 1-1 draw against FC Goa.
T̶h̶e̶ ̶k̶i̶d̶ The Captain led from the front! 👏🏻
— NorthEast United FC (@NEUtdFC) November 30, 2020
It has been a rapid rise through the ranks at Northeast United for Apuia, who made his ISL debut only last season, earning a place in the starting XI almost instantly with a strong passing accuracy of 80.45 percent in 10 matches. Northeast United finished last season at 9th spot, but in Apuia, the butcher’s son cleaving off attacks in the centre of midfield, they had found a long-term prospect.
Shylo Malsawmtluanga, the ‘Godfather of Mizo football’, said what marks Apuia out is his humility and level-headedness under pressure. “His leadership quality, despite his young age, that too in the ISL, is worth applauding. It makes him a very valuable player in Indian football. As for Mizoram, his legions of fans are only growing,” said the former footballer.
Courage under adversity also seems to be the mantra for the Northeast United FC side under their new leadership.
Despite the numerous hurdles they have faced this season — the cramped size of their training ground in Candolim, the Covid-19 positive tests that halted team preparations last month — they are unbeaten in the season so far and are placed second on the points table, only behind Mumbai City FC.
“Mumbai are the toughest opponents we have faced this season so far,” Apuia said. “Under Sergio Lobera (the current Mumbai City coach and former FC Goa coach), Goa were the toughest side last season. And while Goa are still a difficult opponent because of their open passing and attacking style of play, Lobera’s Mumbai are the team to beat this season,” he said.
— NorthEast United FC (@NEUtdFC) December 7, 2020
The season might have started on an auspicious note for the Highlanders, but Apuia acknowledged that lack of squad depth is something that may stretch them as the season progresses.
“All we can do is to take each game at a time, give our 100 percent every time we step on to the pitch and hope that everyone stays injury-free,” he said.