Nikhil Poojary’s behind-the-back nutmeg in the lead-up to India’s opening goal against Lebanon in the final of the Intercontinental Cup on Sunday may make the best reels and gifs. Still, it was another player, Lallianzuala Chhangte, who was at the heart of the attack and ended up providing the assist too.
The nimble-footed lanky lad from Lunglei — a Mizo town so remote that it isn’t connected to any Indian city by rail or air while roads are treacherous — first received the ball close to the right wing, easily dribbled past an opponent and played it to Poojary out wide. Chhangte sprinted to collect Poojary’s back-heeled pass, charged into the box, and calmly went past a defender with a sweet stepover before squaring it to skipper Sunil Chhetri, who slotted it into the back of the net.
Despite scoring his 87th international goal, Chhetri celebrated by hugging Chhangte and pointing out to him as if to say he’s finally found someone they could center their attack around.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) June 19, 2023
Chhetri has been doing that over the past decade and though his shoes are huge to fill in, if there’s someone who shows the promise of filling them among the current crop, it’s the 26-year-old. His name ‘Lallianzuala’ literally means ‘destined for big things’. A name, his grandfather, Dochhunga, gave him. In fact, it is his grandfather that he owes his footballing career to. Born to a family of modest means, his father, a schoolteacher, wanted him to take his studies seriously while his football-mad grandfather wanted him to take up sports.
When Chhangte was eight, Dochhunga, a government clerk, saved up from his meager salary to gift him a pair of football boots. It was such a great gesture that not even Chhangte’s dad could raise an objection.
“My grandfather loves football. He has never missed my match. He used to buy me boots rather than school shoes and my father used to get very angry. Even my mother used to sell her clothes to buy me football boots,” Chhangte had told The Indian Express back in 2019.
The hard yards
Having seen the hard work and sacrifices his family was putting in so that he could just play football, Chhangte promised himself that he was never going to stop working hard, even when the chips are down.
When asked about Chhangte during the Intercontinental Cup, India coach Igor Stimac didn’t talk about his football or the way he goes past opponents. He just chose to talk about the work he puts in: “He works so hard on a daily basis. You should make a movie about him as he’s an inspiration for future generations, who are coming up and knocking on the door of the senior team. They should learn from him what it takes to be a professional.
“People see him on Sundays scoring for Mumbai City, but they don’t see him the rest of six-and-a-half days working for that Sunday.”
It’s not just at the national team or Mumbai City FC where Chhangte has been putting in the yards. Back in 2014, as a 17-year-old, he was picked up by Pune-based DSK Shivajians’s Liverpool International Academy. He has said that he was the shortest person on the pitch there and initially was quite intimidated by everything as he was on his own. But he stuck to the only thing he knew how to do well: put in the hard work.
His performances in the under-18 league grabbed eyeballs and soon in December 2015, he became the second youngest player to make his India debut.
Loaned to NorthEast United in 2016, Chhangte moved to Delhi Dynamos the next year.
While he did well there, his ambition of playing abroad received a severe blow when he was rejected twice by the Norwegian side Vikings FC in its trials.
He returned to India, signing with Chennaiyin FC. While he did extraordinarily in his first season there, he failed to maintain consistency in the next two campaigns.
Mumbai City FC though had seen enough and more to be convinced that Chhangte would be an ideal fit for their team so midway through the 2021-22 season, they asked Chennaiyin if they could sign him on loan. Chennai were reluctant but finally relented on deadline day – Jan 31.
The prospect of joining a team like Mumbai which is part of the City Football Group (CFG) that has total or partial ownership of thirteen clubs in major cities across the world: Champions League winners Manchester City in the UK, New York City FC in the US, Melbourne FC in Australia among others was something Chhangte just couldn’t let go. And in coach Des Buckingham, he got a manager who trusted him immensely and gave him the freedom to showcase his skills.
Mumbai’s first competition in 2022-23 was the season-opening Durand Cup where they finished runners-up to Bengaluru FC with Chhangte scoring seven goals in seven games. He continued his form in the ISL where he had as many as 16 goal contributions (10 goals, six assists) as his team won the League Shield and he won the Golden Ball.
The problem Chhangte had at Chennaiyin was not that he lacked any skill, it’s just that he would not necessarily choose the right option at critical moments in the match. Mumbai coach Buckingham realised this very early and worked with him intensely.
“The coach has individual sessions with the players. When I first joined the team, we could sit and talk for hours. That helped me immensely. We talk about getting in the right positions, about body posture, and how it’s vital to always be ready to attack. His trust in me has given me confidence and that’s why I’m enjoying my football,” Chhangte said.
The winger still has a lot of dreams that are not yet fulfilled. Joining a foreign club under the CFG umbrella is perhaps one, but what he’s really after is a fabulous AFC Champions League campaign with Mumbai and then the AFC Asian Cup with the national team next January. For now, he’s just content living his grandfather’s dreams.