ISL 2017-18: Taking highs and lows in his stride, Lallianzuala 'Zuala' Chhangte optimistic of bright future
An optimist at heart, Zola Chhangte has taken the highs and the lows in his stride and despite enduring a poor season with Delhi Dynamos, he believes things will work out in the end.
It is the 72nd minute of the match against Bengaluru FC and Delhi Dynamos skipper Pritam Kotal receives the ball on the edge of the penalty box and spots the diminutive Lallianzuala Chhangte make a run behind Bengaluru’s Rahul Bheke and slides in a pass. Chhangte gets on the end of it and without breaking his stride, slots it past the onrushing Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
He celebrates scoring his first goal in nine matches by lifting his shirt to reveal 'Proverb 3:5-6' written on his vest. Proverb 3:5-6 of the Bible says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
For the 20-year-old, God and his family take priority over everything else. Before every match, the Mizoram forward's mother calls him and prays with him for a good result. When a 15-year-old Zuala told his mother his dream of being a professional footballer, she was sceptical at first, but urged him to finish his studies before embarking on his journey.
"When I got my results for my class 10 exam, I asked her if I could now pursue a career in football and she backed me. Now she is my biggest fan! She watches me on TV and would be screaming and shouting at the TV and gets very nervous," Zuala said in an interview with Firstpost.
Like many in the football obsessed-state of Mizoram, Zuala doesn't remember a time when he was more than a foot away from football. Anytime was a good time to play footy for Zuala. Getting punished by your father for skipping church on Sunday to try out a new trick Cristiano Ronaldo did the previous day? Worth it!
"We used to play even when we had exams," Zuala says with an impish grin. "I have four brothers, so even when my friends weren't there, the five of us would go to the ground and play amongst ourselves," he adds.
Zuala played for his local club when he was in school. After completing his schooling, he was signed by Liverpool International Football Academy-DSK Shivajians to play for their under-18 team.
The transition from playing for his local side with teammates he had known his entire life to living on his own in an alien city was not easy for Zuala. More so, when it was the first time he had travelled outside his village without his family.
"It was difficult to leave my family behind, but they were supportive throughout. It was a big sacrifice but I have never regretted it.
"What helped was being with a lot of other players from the North East. The coaching staff at DSK were also very helpful and supportive and made sure that we were comfortable in our new surroundings."
Once he settled in, Zuala began to show his potential. In his debut season in the U-19 I-League, Zuala fired DSK to the final round and ended the season as the league’s top scorer with 16 goals.
His performance caught the eye of national coach Stephen Constantine who called up Zuala to the Indian team for the 2015 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship. In his second appearance for India, Zola scored a stunning brace which made him India’s second youngest goalscorer.
Zuala's season ended on a high after having impressed the Liverpool coaches, when he, along with Jamshedpur FC's Jerry Mawihmingthanga, was handed a trial by the Merseyside club in 2016.
Despite being in the spotlight at such a young age, Zuala didn’t let the fame get to his head and he credits that to the people around him.
"My parents always told me not to be proud or arrogant and to be focused on what I want to achieve. And this was also what my coaches at DSK would say too. I am still young so of course, sometimes the fame and the pressure gets to me but I make sure I don’t lose focus."
In 2016, Zuala was brought on loan by NorthEast United FC for the 2016 ISL season but things didn’t work out so well for the talented forward. Zuala was restricted to being a fringe player at NEUFC and featured for only 23 minutes for the Highlanders.
Zuala, though was disappointed with his stint at the Guwahati-based club, still looks for positives.
"As a 19-year-old being on the bench was frustrating but it only spurred me to work harder in training. I think I learned a lot from my struggle and disappointment and in the end, I believe things worked out for the best."
This season hasn’t been an easy one either for Chhangte and for his new club Delhi Dynamos. They began the season by beating FC Pune City 3-2 with the Zuala scoring his first ISL goal.
But it has been downhill for the Dynamos since then. Despite playing an attacking brand of football, the Miguel Portugal-coached side went on an eight-game winless streak before getting back to winning ways against Bengaluru.
"I think we are a good team and we play well together but you know sometimes when we deserve to win a match, we end up losing it. But that's just football, you know."
Even though Delhi have endured a poor season, Zuala looks for positives to take away from this season. Working under the experienced Spanish coach Miguel Angel Portugal surely counts as one for him.
"He's very calm and he's helping me improve my game. You won't see him screaming at players from the sidelines telling them what to do because he trusts us to play our natural game," Zuala says of the former Real Madrid player.
With India having qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup under Constantine after a gap of eight years and with an abundance of attacking players to choose from, Zuala might miss out on a spot in the 23-man squad.
Ever the glass-half-full person, Zuala remains optimistic about his chances of being on the flight to the UAE.
"All I have to do is work hard and focus on my game and if I play well and I’ll get a chance to play for India again," he concludes.
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The red-and-gold brigade suffered defeats to their arch-rivals in both the matches last season, which was more to do with their troubled build-up and a last-minute entry to ISL.
Nerijus Valskis (51', 61') was the hero of the match as he remained one shy of a perfect hat-trick, managing to first drive the ball with his left foot and then score via a header