Can I-League record goalscorer Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia be the solution to Igor Stimac’s problems?

With 15 goals in the I-League, Lalbiaknia became the highest Indian goalscorer in a single season, breaking the previous joint record of Sunil Chhetri and Mohammed Rafi. 

Published : Apr 06, 2024 07:41 IST , CHENNAI - 7 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: Aizawl FC forward Lalrianzuala Lalbiaknia.
FILE PHOTO: Aizawl FC forward Lalrianzuala Lalbiaknia. | Photo Credit: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia/Instagram

FILE PHOTO: Aizawl FC forward Lalrianzuala Lalbiaknia. | Photo Credit: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia/Instagram

For Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia, time has passed faster than he would have liked. A record-breaker at 23, the spotlight is on him at the moment. While he couldn’t be more thankful for the adulation he has received, he admits that his best days were during his childhood, spent playing football with his friends on the streets of Serchhip, Mizoram. It was a time when he was known as ‘Rinzuala’ - a long time before he became the prolific striker he is today.

Scoring 15 goals (and bagging three assists) in 20 appearances in the 2023-24 I-League season, the 23-year-old Aizawl FC forward has scripted his name in the annals of Indian football, becoming the highest Indian goalscorer in the competition’s history in a single season. He broke the joint record previously held by Sunil Chhetri (2013-14) and Mohammed Rafi (2009-10).

“Where I come from, almost 80 per cent of the kids start playing football from a young age. I used to play on the streets, not even on a field. I made so many friends, and I still talk to all of them. My childhood was awesome,” Lalbiaknia told  Sportstar.

Despite Lalbiaknia’s achievement, it has not been a good season for Aizawl, with the team languishing in ninth place in the I-League after losing 2-0 against Churchill Brothers in its last outing. Lalbikania was unaware of his record as his team struggled.

“I first got to know about the record after my agent told me. I don’t think much about breaking records. Before this, Bidyashagar (Singh) scored 12 goals, won the Golden Boot [in the 2020-21 season] and received [a lot of] praise. Now, it is me. I do not like to take extra pressure because of this,” said the 23-year-old.

Despite the Northeast producing some of India’s best footballers, the region still lacks proper facilities and grassroots programmes. For many, transitioning to professional football becomes difficult due to the lack of proper resources and infrastructure. 

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Lalbiaknia, too, had his fair share of grind before reaching a place where he could earn a living by playing football. 

“When I tried for the Bengaluru FC academy, I had to earn money. My parents did not have enough to support my career. I started working as a daily labourer at the age of 16. I got help from some relatives as well. After collecting some money, I could go to the trials.

“Right now, there is no proper setup for the young players. Yes, we have a lot of leagues, some of them organised by Reliance Foundation. But the youth setup is not organised,” Lalbikania adds. 

The Mizo does not want the future generations to face the same hardships. Emphasising the lack of a systematic focus on grassroots developments, he aims to reach a place where he can do his bit to improve the youth setup at his native place.

Lalbiaknia had to wait in the wings for a considerable time before getting his break. Playing for Bengaluru FC’s U16 and U18 youth teams (2017-19), he spent the next three years in the Gokulam Kerala reserves team. After failing to break into the first team, he plied his trade for Chhinga Veng FC in the Mizoram Premier League, including a brief loan spell with Delhi FC. Finally, Aizawl FC came calling, where he joined on a free transfer in June 2023. 

Dream of donning the national blue

FILE PHOTO: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia (extreme left) with Sunil Chhetri (second from right)
FILE PHOTO: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia (extreme left) with Sunil Chhetri (second from right) | Photo Credit: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia/Instagram

FILE PHOTO: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia (extreme left) with Sunil Chhetri (second from right) | Photo Credit: Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia/Instagram

With so much attention on Lalbiaknia now, the forward says that he wants to channel this into something positive and take a step towards making his debut for India. That is the immediate dream for him, and he admits that he needs to keep working hard to turn his dream into reality. 

The Indian squad has not featured players from the I-League recently, but the Mizo forward feels that the narrative will change soon - “Skill-wise, I think the level of most Indian players is the same in I-League and ISL. I-League players will prove themselves if they are given the chance.”’

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Despite his ruthlessness in front of goal, Lalbikania says he needs to polish his game further to operate at a higher level. While his shooting and finishing have been top-notch this season, he wants to work on his upper-body strength, which will help him shield the ball better. Strengthening his aerial presence is another area where Lalbikania feels he can improve. 

ISL calling?

If Lalbiaknia maintains his stellar form, very soon, ISL clubs will come knocking. Aware of that, the forward says that he will want to play in the ISL in the future, but at the moment, he is happy with where he is.

“There should be more teams in the ISL because then, the league will be more interesting. But right now, I want to work hard every day and be the best player I can be. I want to enjoy myself as a football player.”

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