The midfield is the crux of any footballing team and playing in the midfield requires effort and stamina that goes beyond just 100 percent in modern football. The Indian men’s senior national team player Lalengmawia Ralte, fondly known as Apuia, is equivalent to a modern-day midfielder who ticks all the boxes.

An unearthed gem from NorthEast United FC’s squad in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 campaign, Apuia was a vital cog in the Highlanders’ incredible run to the semi-final under head coach Khalid Jamil. His 50 successful tackles – second to just Ahmed Jahouh in the league – alongside 46 interceptions, 23 clearances, 23 blocks and a a solitary goal earned him a deserved Hero ISL Emerging Player of the League award.

This breakthrough campaign earned the Mizoram-born player a call-up to the Indian national team in March 2021 as he made his debut in a 1-1 draw against Oman in a friendly. Apuia’s incredible defensive calibre and an exceptional reading of the game saw him being picked out by Mumbai City FC ahead of the Hero ISL 2021-22 season. 

Deployed in a double pivot alongside one of the league’s finest midfielders in Ahmed Jahouh, the 22-year-old was set to thrive under new head coach Des Buckingham and he continued to excel while also facing some new challenges under the Englishman. However, the 22-year-old is no ordinary midfielder, possessing several capabilities of playing as a No 6 while also as an No 8.

“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,” Apuia stated in an interaction with AIFF.

In the 2022-23 campaign, Buckingham made several tweaks to Apuia's position, with the midfielder gaining more control in the middle third. He was assigned with creating more spaces and breaking into the final third more often alongside his primary defensive roles. At times, Apuia would make a late entry into the box in order to execute the attacking play, which in turn saw the midfielder register three goals.

“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.

Having featured in the Blue Tigers’ U17 side that played in the 2017 U17 FIFA World Cup, Apuia has come a long way. Alongside him, a number of his teammates have made the cut to the senior national team such as Anwar Ali, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Jeakson Singh, and Rahim Ali. All these players have played a vital role in their respective club campaigns and will plausibly form the core for the national team in the coming years.

“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 Hero ISL and the senior national team as nobody would've heard about me," he added.

The midfielder will have his work cut out to fight for a place in the starting eleven in the upcoming Hero Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championships later this year.

While he has won honours in the national colours, Apuia last played for the Blue Tigers in 2021 in their SAFF Championship triumph in Maldives, subsequently ruling him out for the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and the Hero Tri-Nation International tournament held earlier this year.

"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 upcoming months will be crucial for the national team in their build-up to the AFC Asian Cup in January 2024. Apuia will have to be ahead of the curve and prove his mettle in the upcoming international tournaments in the SAFF Championship, Intercontinental Cup, and the King’s Cup. 

Additionally, the midfielder will also have a vital role to play in Mumbai City FC’s AFC Champions League 2024 campaign that will see him contest against some of the best teams and players in the continent, which will only help nurture his development in the long run.

"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 (Lallianzuala) 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,” he added.

"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.