Went under radar after the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup
– Told the club midway through last season that he wanted to leave
– Chatter in dressing room as player showed more keenness to leave
Mumbai City, ATK Mohun Bagan in pole position in the transfer race post 2020-21 season
Apuia’s new agent accelerates movement

A transfer saga that went on for months has finally come to an end, with Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Mumbai City FC completing the signing of Lalengmawia Ralte from NorthEast United earlier this week. Hailed as one of India’s brightest future prospects, ‘Apuia’ had won the ‘Emerging Player’ award in the ISL following his impressive performance with the Highlanders in the 2020-21 season.

Needless to say, several clubs in the league were keen to acquire his services this summer. The fact that he had a year remaining on his contract with NorthEast United made things more interesting. This meant that they had to agree to a transfer fee with the Highlanders before discussing personal terms with the player. For a long time, the Highlanders were unwilling to sell their prized possession – but that changed last week.

In this article, Khel Now explains what went down behind the curtains in the entire process of Apuia’s transfer:

A look at his career

Lalengmawia, or ‘Apuia’ as he is popularly known, first rose to prominence in 2017, when he made it to India’s FIFA U-17 World Cup squad.

He did well for the Blue Colts, in the blockbuster tournament. Despite that, the 20-year-old went under the radar as opposed to the likes of Dheeraj Singh, Jeakson Singh and others. Although he joined Indian Arrows, he did not get much game-time with them and featured in just 13 I-League matches across two seasons. The turning point in his career came when NorthEast United signed him for the ISL.

Lalengmawia
Lalengmawia’s stats from ISL 2020-21

Apuia emerged as a first-choice starter for the Guwahati-based club quickly, as he showed great progress in training. He eventually wrapped up his maiden ISL campaign with 10 appearances. The midfielder also completed 486 passes in the league, with an impressive 80.45% accuracy.

If the 2019-20 season showed fans a glimpse of what he was capable of, it became clearer in 2020-21. He dictated the show from midfield for NorthEast, clocking 1848 minutes across 22 games. Statistics-wise, he completed 811 passes, 93 tackles, 46 interceptions and 23 blocks. During the season, he also became the youngest player ever to become the captain of an ISL side, when he led his club in a draw against FC Goa in December.

The 2020-21 ISL season also witnessed NorthEast United reaching the playoffs for only the second time in history. Apuia had a direct role to play there as well. His wonderful 40-yard screamer in the final league match against Kerala Blasters was not only one of the best goals of the season, but it also took his team to the semi-finals.

In March, the youngster also made his senior debut for the Indian football team – against Oman in an international friendly.

How the transfer saga began

NorthEast United signed Apuia on a three-year contract in 2019. The deal would have ideally seen him remain at the club till end of the upcoming 2021-22 season.

“The club has always wanted him to stay. From midway through the last season, they were trying to negotiate a new deal way bigger than the one he’s currently on. Their objective was to keep him with them for a much longer time,” sources close to the club informed Khel Now.

A defensive midfielder by trade, the youngster is a unique player and the Highlanders knew that well. But, so did the other teams in the league and most of them did not keep their interest in him a secret.

The player also seemed to be aware of it, as he informed NorthEast United midway through the 2020-21 season that he will not sign a new contract with them. This led to the club making bigger efforts to make him stay, including assigning him the captain’s armband. “NEUFC have shown faith in him right from his first season with the club. He even went on to be handed their captaincy at such an young age,” a source said.

However, that did not create much of an impact, as Apuia decided to complete the season with the Highlanders. Afterwards, he informed the club once again that he will not sign a new deal.

Movement in the summer

While at least four other teams expressed initial interest, Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan were always the leaders in the race to sign Apuia. They started chasing him soon after the conclusion of ISL 2020-21, where the former became champions and the latter finished runners-up.

Despite the two ISL giants’ willingness to sign him, the movement was very slow and even non-existent at times. The turning point came in June, when the youngster appointed Watson Fernandes, a well-known face in Indian football, as his new agent. “The decision was taken after the midfielder concluded that he will be the best person to guide him,” a source close to both parties revealed.

This, in turn, resulted in the transfer gaining momentum once again. NorthEast United, however, did not allow any club to speak to the player. By then, they had made up their mind to part ways with him only for a record transfer fee, or as a free agent next summer.

As mentioned earlier, the player had continuously refused to sign a new deal with them, even creating a “chatter in the dressing room last season,” as per club sources.

The final showdown

Apuia and his representative were understandably aware that if the deal dragged on any further, the pressure would be on NorthEast United to sell. In the last week of July, talks accelerated, as the club revealed their demands for the first time. They were clear – they wanted nothing less than a record transfer fee of over ₹2 crores plus taxes.

In the first week of August, the transfer saga reached its conclusion. Mumbai City agreed to pay the Highlanders their asking price. With the agreement in place, it also became the biggest transfer fee of all-time in Indian football. The previous record was held by ATK Mohun Bagan, whose purchase of Hugo Boumous cost them just around ₹2 crores.

“MCFC and NEUFC have reached the agreement. NorthEast have also given Mumbai the permission to discuss personal terms with the player,” sources close to the development informed Khel Now last week.

It did not take much longer before Mumbai City representatives and the player’s entourage agreed terms. As per the contractual terms agreed and signed this week, Apuia will join the Islanders on a five-year contract worth over ₹11 crores. As things stand, he has also become one of the highest-paid players in the history of Indian football.

“NorthEast United feel wronged at having their prized possession taken away from them,” sources close to the club revealed. However, it also needs to be understood that the player himself had told the club that he will not sign a new contract with them. He had, thereby, made it clear that he would remain with them till the end of his existing deal in 2022, at most. Eventually, it was the Highlanders’ decision to make – should they let him leave as a free agent next summer, or earn a profit by offloading him for a record transfer fee this season?

Conclusion

With that, the curtains have fallen on one of the longest Indian football transfer sagas in recent times. The move will cost the Islanders a sum total of more than ₹13 crores over five years. This includes the transfer fee and player wages.

However, at the same time, the jury is still out on how Apuia can create an impact at his new club.

At NorthEast United, he was a first-choice starter and got plenty of game-time. However, the club are not a part of the upper echelons in the ISL when it comes to gunning for trophies. By shifting base to Mumbai City, the 20-year-old has solved that problem. But, will he get the same importance at Mumbai City as he did at NorthEast United? Only time will tell.

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