IN AMERICAN FOOTBALL, it's common to see players use code words and numbers when communicating with each other, as a way to hide their strategy and upcoming moves from their opponents. In Indian football, a version of it has become an increasingly frequent occurence.
When you're attending an ISL or I-League match, you will often hear Mizo phrases like "tawhl hnung" or "kal hma" being shouted between teammates, especially when they're not within the earshot of Mizo players from the opponent team.
It's an aspect of the game that Mumbai City's celebrated Mizo youngsters, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Lalengmawia Ralte, particularly enjoy. Speaking to TFG about their experience playing for MCFC so far, both of them joked about their on-field chatter that has seemingly served them well. Lalengmawia said,
"Sometimes I just told him to run in our language, sometimes to stay back... they don't understand so it's quite an advantage for us."
Lallianzuala further elaborated on this particular dynamic,
"It's a great feeling when you have a player or a friend with whom you can speak in your own language, with whom you can share everything in your language. It's great to have players like him. Because it not only helps us outside the pitch, it also helps us inside the pitch. Because no one knows our language. So we can speak in our language and it helps a lot sometimes."
Both of these players belong to the wave of players from Mizoram that took Indian football by storm over the last decade as the state emerged as a top footballing hub, Zuala and Apuia (as Lalengmawia is popularly known to his fans) have found themselves sharing the same camp both at club level and for the national team.
Both players are coming into their own this season. They have appeared for Mumbai City in most of the matches, experienced some personal success at both Durand Cup and the ISL, and look set to play a major part in Des Buckingham's grand plan to make MCFC the Champions of India again.
But although their footballing journeys have aligned at this crucial juncture, their rise to the top came about in a different fashion.
Lalengmawia, who hails from Aizawl, was a discovery of the FIFA U-17 World Cup trials. In the lead up to the elite event he got a glimpse of what the top of the football world looks like. He went on to play for Indian Arrows and NorthEast United and rose through India's youth squads before his career reached a major turning point in 2021; he broke into the senior national team and signed for Mumbai City. His early career reads like an advertisement for the strategic youth development that India is finally starting to implement with their upcoming talent. And Apuia, too, appreciates the opportunities he has had,
"It was a great experience playing in Indian Arrows. It helped us a lot, travelling abroad and playing some good opponents all over Europe... we had very good experience at a very young age. Like we played against Vinicius Jr, Haaland and all..."
On the other hand, Lallianzuala has had a rare career path. The winger from Lunglei became an overnight sensation way back in 2015 when he got a big break in the national team at the SAFF Championship. At that time, he wasn't even playing club football yet. He was a part of the Liverpool-DSK Shivajians academy, which was where he was spotted by the then national team head coach Stephen Constantine who immediately brought him onto the senior team as well.
Coming on as a substitute, he scored a brace against Nepal, and was immediately pegged as one of the future stars. He became a regular for his club from the 2016-17 season and now, at age 25, he's already got seven full years of professional football experience under his belt.
Looking back, Zuala said,
"To be honest we were fortunate enough to get these opportunities. The place where we stayed at DSK was of international level. Getting these experiences helped me a lot to improve... everywhere I played, the coaches truested me, the managements very good to me. I think that helped a lot, building my character, to become more mature. And now of course, here we are in Mumbai with good players, good management... I'm looking forward to learn more as a player and as a human being."
Now, just days ahead of playing against Stephen Constantine's East Bengal, Zuala spoke about his former coach with fondness,
"We met at Durand Cup when we were playing against him. I'm always going to say this, because he was the one who was giving me an opportunity to play at a very young age for the Indian team. I'm always going to be very thankful for the opportunity that he gave me and I'm looking forward to play against him. Last time we met we lost a game but this time it will be different... we will go with our full force. I hope we get three points from there."
Lalengmawia, too, agreed with Zuala's sentiment about the upcoming match,
"As we are a City Football Group club, the philosophy of the club is to attack and a play beautiful football game... it's always great to play in a good stadium. Salt Lake is a top stadium in India. The fans are always there to support us. So it's going to be a great match and I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully, this time we'll win... I just want a win. Three points."
Mumbai City have emerged as a frontrunner for the league title this season, and if they don't lose to East Bengal they will finish the whole first half of their campaign unbeaten. They are constantly jostling for the top position on the points table. It's a particularly valuable experience for these two youngsters because neither of them have won a major trophy in club football.
Zuala was at Chennaiyin FC when they reached the ISL playoff final, but lost. Then, earlier this season, both of them experienced hearbreak when Mumbai City lost in the Durand Cup final. But when asked if a title-challenge campaign was putting any extra pressure on the players, Zuala said,
"We approach every game the same way. The coach used to say this. This is what I like about him. When we were playing Durand Cup, even if it was an I-League team or ISL team, we approached them with the same mentality, the same desire. So getting three points and going through unbeaten in the first phase, it's a great feeling. But that doesn't really matter. The most important thing is three points and keeping this momentum going, approaching this game the same way approached the last game. That's what's important to us."
Apuia, meanwhile, is experiencing a new facet of being a professional player this season. In 2020-21, he finally became a regular starter for NorthEast United and went on to win the ISL Emerging Player of the Season award. But by then, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and matches were being played inside a bio-bubble. For him, this is the first season in ISL where he is playing heavy minutes while travelling long distances between matches. Asked about it, he said he was rather enjoying this new routine,
"It's another experience... there's still a lot of time for recovery as well so it's not a big problem. The thing is, we need to maintain ourselves. The thing is, we need to maintain ourselves. What we eat, when we sleep... it's a great experience, travelling and seeing different states, different fans from all over India."
But although they are visiting nearly a dozen states for matches throughout the season, they haven't played an official match in their own state of Mizoram for years.
Both of them have favourite teams in the Mizoram Premier League, which was won by Chawnpui FC recently. Lalengmawia used to play for Chanmari FC, and said he still supported them in MPL. Lallianzuala backed Mizoram Police FC, the fabled old guards of Mizoram football. And both of them are excited about the possibility of Aizawl FC winning the I-League and being promoted to ISL thanks to the open league system that's being re-implemented in Indian club football. Apuia said,
"If Aizawl FC came to the ISL we would be one of the happiest... obviously we're going to support our local club and it would be a proud moment for Mizoram all over... since there's only one club from Norht East in the ISL, it will be great for all of North East to have another club... there will be more opportunities for other guys who don't get the chance to play in ISL. It will be great for the people and also the players."
Zuala also stressed on the need for Mizoram to have clubs from across the state, and not just the capital Aizawl, playing in the Mizoram Premier League so that the development of the sport happens evenly in every district,
"There are no teams competing in the playoffs, that's the problem. In the recent years a couple of teams played in the playoffs and in the Mizoram Premier League also... I hope some club from outside Aizawl will come up again and compete with these city clubs, hopefully in the near future."
And they are, of course, watching the World Cup. When asked who they were supporting, Lalengmawia picked no less than three countries; Argentina, France and Brazil. Lallianzuala picked only France. Incidentally, none of them mentioned Morocco, where Mumbai City star midfielder Ahmed Jahouh hails from.
With Morocco set to face France in the semi-finals, Zuala jokingly hoped Jahouh didn't find out that he was supporting their opponents,
"If you show this video or if he sees this video he will be very mad at us."
Mumbai City have several players in their squad whose countries played in the FIFA World Cup 2022. Apart from Jahouh there's Alberto Noguera (Spain), Rostyn Griffiths (Australia), Mourtada Fall (Senegal) and Jodge Diaz (Argentina). Sharing a dressing room with them, Zuala and Apuia can see up close the excitement of having a place in football's biggest event, but can't experience it themselves.
Which inevitably led to the most common question we ask each other every four years: Why isn't India good enough to qualify for the World Cup? Lalengmawia, who played in the FIFA U-17 World Cup, offered a perfectly succinct answer,
"For me, from what I have experienced from travelling to different countries and seeing what they did, most of the European countries did grassroots. Grassroots is very important. We need to learn the basic techniques. The fitness, the diet should be controlled from a very young age so that we can play at a high level. In India mostly there are some tournaments for Under-18 twice a year. That's not enough to compete against European countries who have lots of game time at a very age. We cannot compare someone who plays 30 matches a year and someone who plays around 100 matches a year. So if you add up the numbers in four five years the difference will be a lot. So grassroot is the most important thing... if you teach an adult he will not learn much. If you teach a young guy he will learn."
Apuia is just 22 years old now, so there remains a possibility that he may get to play in the World Cup if India manage to get there after a decade or so. But for now, the only thing they can focus on is Mumbai City's ongoing ISL campaign.
Asked what they wanted to get out of this season, Zuala answered,
"Individually I used to set targets. That is, to be better than I was last year and of course the last match I played, always. Helping my team as much as I could in terms of getting three points... and I think the ultimate goal is obviously to win the league, the title. We are still in the first phase of the season and we have a long, long way to go. But hopefully if we work hard enough, if we stay united... we've got a good squad and a good coach, and a staff supporting us on and off the pitch. So I think we can achieve these goals."
As for Apuia, he said,
"For me, I want goals and assists. I have only one goal but I still don't have assists. So the main target will be assists for me. As a midfielder I want assists. It depends on the role I play. If I play in a defensive role I want clean sheet. That will be my personal target. And I want to help the team win the trophy. That's the most important thing. Not only for me, but for all of us, that will be the main target, winning the ISL."
Players from Mizoram have made their mark at MCFC since the club's first season. Back in 2014, they had Lalrindika Ralte as a regular starter. And Dika happens to be Apuia's favourite player; making for a metaphorical baton pass from one generation of Mizoram's best to the next.
And if Lallianzuala and Lalengmawia manage to achieve their goals this season, Mumbai City's Mizo connection is only set to grow stronger in the future.