Football is a way of life in the North-Eastern part of India. Apart from the traditional hotbeds like Goa, West Bengal, and Kerala, the sport has witnessed a manifold increase in popularity in Mizoram and Manipur, especially in the last decade or so.
In every nook and corner of the two North-Eastern states, you can find a group of young boys kicking around a football. Age is no bar, and even a 10-year-old would compete fearlessly with his much older counterparts who are probably already in their late teens.
Lalengmawia's story is no different. From a very young age, he had taken a liking for football. When his friends and playmates would be engrossed in Pokemon and Beyblades in the afternoon before starting their regular game fo football, he would reach the field early and just kick the ball until others arrived.
"Boys of my age had other toys. But I just needed a ball. During the lunchtime at school, I played and in the after-hours as well. Physically I was not very strong, so that was a problem in the beginning. But I kept playing the game.
"At 13, I started playing in the U17 Mizoram Premier League (MPL). Most of them were 17-year-olds and they would kick and foul me. But, by that time I had got accustomed to it since I was always playing with older boys from a very early age," reminisced Lalengmawia to Goal.
Financial adversities, short stature, no proper grooming in the early teens and more such challenges have come thick and fast for the Mizo boy. But he has always found a way to get around them. And his selection in the U17 World Cup squad further testifies his iron-will and determination.
"I was the only player from Mizoram and one of the last few additions to that squad. The first trial was held at Valpui. It was a local affair and I got through. The next stage was at Shillong. All the players that were scouted from the North-East arrived there. But, I got selected again. Then I thought that it was the final stage. But once again, we were asked to travel to Guwahati. There we played a match against the already selected U17 boys. It was a 1-1 draw and in the end, I got selected and was inducted in the B team."
The midfielder believes that getting selected in the U17 team was the best thing to happen for him. The exposure trips to Europe not only made him a better player but also helped him understand why their European counterparts are so ahead of them.
"It was very difficult to play against a team from Germany. They were not holding on to the ball for too long and just as we were about to close them, they would pass and move. It was very frustrating. But that has been a very good learning curve. We played against so many strong teams that helped us to get better."
During the European sojourns, he visited many academies as well. On many occasions, the Indian team would play against them and during those matches, he realised the importance of training under a professional coach in a proper setup from a very young age.
"I started playing football very early, maybe from six or seven. But that was very casual. Whereas in Europe, they not only start at a very young age, they also train under licensed coaches from that time. It makes a lot of difference. In the World Cup also, the teams were playing the 'pass and move' football. I liked that style very much. I try to inculcate that in my game. But to play like that, you have to think very fast. Even before you receive the ball you have to know what you are going to do next, whom to pass."
But the NorthEast United midfielder heaped praise on former coach Luis Norton Matos, as he thinks that the Portuguese tactician taught the boys the very basics which have been helped him play against professional teams in I-League and now against superior oppositions in the Indian Super League (ISL).
"Under Matos Sir, we did a lot of training with the ball. He taught us how to maintain the shape of a team. We used to miss passes a lot at first. We trained to rectify those. But, in I-League the lack of experience was hurting us. Mostly in the second half, we played better, as we would understand how to counter the opposition plan. And our fitness also helped us a lot.
"The entire credit goes to him (Matos). We used to make many mistakes. Then through video analysis, he would make us understand those. He always told us to play so fast that the opposition does not get time to tackle you."
A fan of FC Barcelona, Mawia idolises Sergio Busquets. Like the Spanish midfielder, he wants to be that vital cog in the team who would set the tone for the side from a defensive midfield position.
"I try to emulate his calmness and vision. The way he controls a game is beautiful. And an assist always gives me more happiness than scoring a goal. I hope to contribute with as many as I can while playing for NorthEast."
The 19-year-old had been one of the bright spots for the Highlanders in the previous season and in what was otherwise a lacklustre campaign. It now remains to be seen whether he can take a leaf out of his idol's book and show glimpses of the attributes that he so dearly admires in the upcoming ISL season.