Lallianzuala Chhangte is not lacking in ambition. The 25-year-old has joined former Indian Super League (ISL) champions Mumbai City FC on a three-year deal with one eye on the larger City Football Group that owns the club. He missed out on a spot in the Indian team for the recently concluded third round of the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers but is pretty confident that he will be a regular in the squad.
Born in the picturesque Lunglei town, about 165km south of Mizoram’s capital Aizawl, Chhangte has been spoken about in the Indian football circles ever since he was a teenager. He has lived up to that potential to a certain extent, making 97 appearances in the ISL and being the third highest Indian goalscorer in the history of the league. However, anybody who has followed ‘Zuala’ would say that he has a lot more to offer and he hopes Mumbai to be the club that will push him forward.
“It is an answer to my prayers,” Chhangte told hindustantimes.com when asked what he thinks about his move to Mumbai, which was initially a loan deal from Chennaiyin FC before becoming permanent.
“It is the best choice for my future development. They are linked with the City Football Group so that can help me become a better player. Who knows, there might be a possibility to play outside India if I perform well.”
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So what made Mumbai City such an attractive proposition? It may seem like a silly question, considering they are part of the CFG network, the nucleus of which are Premier League champions Manchester City, but in Chhangte’s words: “They are serious about football, not just wanting to compete in India. We saw that in the Asian Champions League, we weren’t just participating there, we were performing. Mumbai City has a plan which is a very good thing for a player.”
Disappointment in ISL, history in the Champions League
It didn’t really go according to plan for Mumbai last season in the ISL. In 2020/21, they became the first club to win the League Winners Shield and the ISL trophy in the same season. In the 2021/22 season, head coach Sergio Lobera left and with him seemed to go the possession-based football that the team was built for and in came Englishman Des Buckingham. His counter-attacking style didn’t work out that well and Mumbai finished fifth, a far cry from their dominance in the previous season, which was also their first after being brought into the CFG fold.
Chhangte himself made just seven appearances in the league for Mumbai. However, there was some light in that tunnel for him and his team. Mumbai then went on to put up quite a historic performance in the AFC Champions League, becoming the first Indian club to win two matches in the competition, and Chhangte was in the thick of it all.
“It was a great experience for the whole team, not just for me. I feel very blessed. We are not just representing Mumbai City but the whole country.”
Mumbai were facing sides who were experienced with playing in the latter stages of the tournament, one of whom was Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab. While they lost 3-0, the scoreline hardly did justice to how commendable their performance was. They then did the double over the mighty Air Force Club of Iraq, with the second defeat knocking them out of the competition.
“We were there in the ACL the whole time. We could have done better but every time we played a match we made it so difficult for the opponents. They are all strong teams, we knew that, but we were competing. Some of those players later told us that we are a very hard team to beat. That tells us that we are improving a lot. If we work hard then soon we will be able to compete consistently in Asia,” he said.
A spot in the national squad
It didn’t translate to more good news on an international level for Chhangte, though. He was part of the 41-player national camp that India head coach Igor Stimac had called in April ahead of the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. Chhangte then ended up being left out of the final squad, which finished top of the table and secured a second straight Asian Cup qualification.
“I was there in the 41-player list but unfortunately I wasn’t in the final squad. They did a pretty good job in the qualifiers. I will be back soon, that is for sure,” said Chhangte.
“This only makes me stronger. When one opportunity is gone, another comes and I am not going to just stand still and think oh, I am not in the national team. My mindset is always that I will give my best for the country and the club and I am going to be one of the main men for the team,” said Chhangte.
While he hasn’t been able to speak with Stimac too much of late, Chhangte said that the Croatian has told him what he expects of him.
“We have a good connection, especially when I was going for trials in Norway. He gave me permission to go, stay back over there. I can’t thank him enough. There are so many other players that need to be taken care of. I know what I need to work on. Hopefully I’ll be back soon in the team,” he said.
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Chhangte is one of few Indian players who have been called for trials in a European club. In his case, this was Viking FK in Norway back in 2019. The club even seemed interested in signing him but a deal couldn’t quite be worked out. He is now 25 years old and knows that there are younger players that these clubs might be keeping an eye on but Chhangte remains eager to jump at an opportunity.
“I am still looking forward to an opportunity but it won’t be easy. There are a lot of young players coming out. But if the opportunity comes up, I will take it,” he said.
“Looking back five years, I think I have become more mature in making decisions, not just in front of goal but also about gelling with the team. In football it is not only about going out there, playing and performing. It is also about how you live your life outside the pitch also. You have to sleep on time, get up early and do extra work.”
Return of fans
Fans return next season, as does travel and the home and away format in the ISL after two seasons of playing in bio-bubbles across three empty stadiums in Goa. “Playing in the bio-bubble has become normal right now,” said Chhangte before letting out a laugh.
“It is a good thing (if home and away format returns) because we will not be just playing in just three stadiums but in different cities with different atmospheres. There will be advantages and disadvantages. You should be able to manage and adapt yourself very quickly. I can’t wait to play in Mumbai in front of our fans and I hope it will make a big difference in terms of results,” he said.