One day, you’ll look to see I have gone,
But tomorrow may rain so, I’ll follow the sun
The Beatles classic playing in the car is evoking a mix of nostalgia and amusement in the person at the wheel. “Tomorrow may rain? It rains every day of the month in Aizawl in July,” quips Jeje Lalpekhlua, 25, Indian football’s new goal-scoring sensation, as he guides his white Creta SX Plus across the Mizo capital through a light drizzle.
Our destination is the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Mualpui, on the outskirts of the city. As we move from Zarkawt, near the city centre, across Bara Bazaar, the Chhinga Veng church, the Millennium Centre Mall and College Veng, it becomes clear that the footballer enjoys star status here. Cabbies stop their Maruti 800 taxis and honk; students on bicycles gesticulate with cries of ‘Jeje, Jeje!’ and even Mizo singer Rosy K Remsangpuii, a YouTube sensation, flags him down at an intersection to exchange pleasantries.
As we near the stadium, the downpour becomes stronger, reducing the traffic to a crawl. The way Jeje negotiates his SUV through the by-lanes, snaking his way through a maze of scooties, motorcycles, trucks and cars, the manoeuvring qualities of the striker known to position himself strategically in the penalty box, come to the fore. As is expected of an explosive football forward, being at the right place at the right moment comes effortlessly to Jeje Lalpekhlua.
Top of the pops
Ever since he made his international debut five years ago, Jeje, as he is popularly known in football circles, has made his presence felt in India’s forward line, along with skipper Sunil Chhetri. In May 2015, he won the I-League with Mohun Bagan. Six months later, he was part of the Chennaiyin FC outfit that lifted the Indian Super League (ISL) trophy and in January this year, he scored thrice in four matches during the South Asian Football Federation championship.
In the last season of the ISL, Jeje, whose stocky physique often draws comparisons with Argentine forward Carlos Tevez, stood out with six goals and three assists. In January, during the SAFF Cup semi-final, Jeje’s two strikes against the Maldives in Thiruvananthapuram helped the team reach the finals.
His brilliant run of form in 2016 continued at the SAFF Cup, where he helped India triumph by scoring three goals. Against Laos in June, Jeje nodded the ball home off a fine cross by winger Udanta Singh. “That win was special,” says football writer Novy Kapadia. “It was India’s first victory on international soil after a decade. It was in this match that Jeje announced to the world about how he is the most exciting prospect in Indian football today, a future captain.”
The time is right for Jeje to be captain of the Indian national team, avers Indian football icon Bhaichung Bhutia. “He displays good leadership qualities. If you speak to those who play along him, you’ll realise Jeje evokes great respect,” says Bhutia.
Not only has Jeje been one of the best performers for Chennaiyin FC in the last two seasons, but he is one of the best Indian players in the league, says its coach Marco Materazzi. “Jeje displays all the qualities to play abroad,” says Materazzi, the controversial Italian defender best remembered for provoking Zinedine Zidane into a head-butt after a personal slur during the 2006 World Cup final.
The New Bhaichung
If football pundits appear to be in a haste to anoint Jeje the new Bhaichung, you cannot blame them. The career trajectories of Jeje and Bhaichung Bhutia have many parallels.
Jeje was born in 1991 at Hnahtial, a small town in Mizoram’s Lunglei district. Bhutia, called ‘Twinkle Toes from Tinkitam’ (a tribute to the Sikkimese town where he was born) by football aficionados, left another small Northeast state to play for East Bengal around that time.
Over the last few years, Mizoram has turned into the new nursery of Indian football, says Kapadia. They were gold medallists at the National Games, became national champions by winning the Santosh Trophy in 2014 and these days, almost every I-league club team features players from the state.
The football infrastructure in Mizoram has evolved. Talented players can graduate from inter-village tournaments played in each of Mizoram’s eight districts, to playing in the Mizoram Premier League (MPL).
Still, Mizoram’s footballers cannot fight their topography. The mountainous state is prone to landslides and the chances of finding a natural football ground are slim. Five years after the government set up the first artificial turf in 2011, the number of turfs is just five.
Today’s young footballers can ply their trade on one of the two manicured grounds in Aizawl. But others like Jeje grew up playing on arid patches of land. “My hometown didn’t have even one decent playground. Most times, I ended up playing on hard grounds that got slushy during the rain. Players were at a risk of injury as well as infection,” recalls Jeje.
Jeje’s father was a part-time footballer, while his uncle F Lianhmingthanga, the more accomplished footballer at home, represented Mizoram in the Santosh Trophy in the 1980s.
If his family hadn’t encouraged him to pursue football, he would have been another soccer-struck boy from the Northeast, says Jeje. “Not just my father and my mother, but my grandmother and grandfather used to turn up to watch me play in village matches. For me, they continue to be the most important people in the world.”
In his teens, Jeje grew up wanting to emulate winger Shylo Malsawmtluanga, who was making a name for himself in Kolkata’s football circles. Malsawmtluanga, better known as ‘Mama’ in his home state, plays for East Bengal in the I-League and dons the Delhi Dynamos jersey in the Indian Super League. In 2002, Mama became the first Mizo player from Mizoram to play professional football. “When Mama signed up for East Bengal, we discovered that a player from our state was playing in matches telecast on TV. All of us dreamt of becoming Mama, growing up to become pro footballers one day and playing in the I-League,” says Jeje.
Like Mama, Jeje realised if he were to make it big in the game, he had to move out of Mizoram. Fortunately a scout from Pune FC spotted the 17-year-old kid with muscular calves and a cocky composure. Jeje went on to play for the seniors team in the second division of I-League and then, riding on his goal-scoring abilities, moved to Pailan Arrows, Dempo FC and Mohun Bagan in 2014 and has now signed up for Chennaiyin FC. Still, says Jeje, he has a soft corner for his first club. “I may have won the ISL and Federation Cup playing for others. But I miss Pune FC. The coaching staff there gave me a lot of affection. It was the first club outside Mizoram I went to play professional football in. Pune was a home away from home,” he says.
Notwithstanding his success at the international level, Jeje’s heart beats for his state, says Aizawl-based journalist Mamuana, who goes by just one name. “Mizoram is a close-knit society. Players who go to play in Kolkata, get homesick within days. But Jeje is made of sterner stuff,” says Mamuana “Still, whenever he gets an opportunity during off-season, he rushes back to Mizoram,” he adds.
These days, the small-town hero is raking in the big bucks. He reportedly makes more than `80 lakh a year from his football engagements. Jeje has built a sprawling house in Aizawl’s Luangmual neighbourhood and has acquired a new set of wheels along with a Great Dane that he likes to walk every morning. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots in Hnahtial, where he grew up playing on rocky grounds.
The people of Hnahthial are a huge support. Even when I am not playing, all of them are praying for me. I need to help them too, on the field and off the field. I’ve been training children there with another two boys from the town who are in the India under-19 camp. The Football Players association of India is supporting us by giving us shoes and football kits
Teaming up with Mama, his childhood friend Lalrindika Ralte and Robert Lalthlamuana, both of whom play for Atletico de Kolkata, Jeje donates money and football kits to the HIV-affected in Mizoram. He is also sponsoring the education of a 10-year-old poor boy who hails from Tripura. Footballers in India don’t earn even a fraction of endorsement money that cricketers attract. What makes Jeje loosen his purse strings? “It is not the amount that matters. I recently gave a water filter to a local hospital and I give gifts on Christmas. As a Christian, I feel whenever I am helping poor people, I am helping myself,” says Jeje, a Protestant who visits the church every Saturday and Sunday.
Apart from being religious, one credo that Jeje keeps emphasising upon in our conversation is arduous training.
Midfielder Pronay Halder, who plays for Mumbai FC in the ISL, says he was impressed by Jeje’s work ethic when they played for Mohun Bagan. “Jeje gives his 200% in the training ground. He is the first person to arrive for training and often you’ll find him in the ground practicing even after training. Jeje has worked out hard in the gym especially on his lower body which has helped him become faster and also helped him increase his stamina.”
To sustain playing at the international level, avers India coach Stephen Constantine, just talent isn’t enough. One also needs to work very hard. Jeje tends to agree with Constantine. “If you just have talent, you can survive on it for only for four to five years. To sustain in the long run, after a few years, an international footballer needs to toil hard,” says Jeje.
Jeje interprets this toil in the form of a back-breaking training schedule. “I make sure I practice for an hour every morning at 9 am. After practice, I have an ice bath to recover. I then work out and have lunch. After evening practice, I stay in the ground longer than others. I need to work on a set of muscles needed by strikers and then I do finishing practice,” he says.
A setback to Jeje’s otherwise illustrious career came when a knee injury kept him out for 12 months in 2012. That was a period of intense self-doubt.“I used to stay sleepless thinking whether I should quit football. But then I thought of all the people praying for me and decided against it. I am a big believer in the power of prayer. That helped me bounce back,” he says.
Now he has stayed injury-free for more than a year, thanks to tips from Mohun Bagan’s Brazilian trainer Djair Garcia. “I gym, swim and exercise to strengthen my knee and it is working,” says Jeje.
Jeje is the toast of the football community these days. But how does the striker who once gained the attention of Scottish club Rangers stay motivated pursuing a sport where India doesn’t figure even in the top 100 in the world? Does he feel sponsors accord a stepmotherly treatment to football when compared to cricket? “Cricket is played by just 15 countries around the world. Football is played by more than 100. The Indian team is doing well. I don’t know when we will qualify for the World Cup, but hosting the 2017 Junior World Cup is step towards exposing younger players to the best in the world,” he says.
Jeje says Indian players are as good as anybody. What we lack is infrastructure. “When I went for a trial with the Rangers I realised their players are technically way ahead. That is because they begin training when they are five. Some of our footballers begin training in their late teens. That is something that needs to change.”
A patriot to the core, Jeje gets nostalgic about the time coach Bob Houghton fielded him for the first time in India colours against Chinese Taipei. “Playing for clubs is fine. But you cannot describe the feeling when you wear the national jersey. I had scored 13 goals for the Pailan Arrows when we went to Malaysia. Still, when Bob Houghton fielded me in the eleven, I had tears of joy. Sunil gave me the ball and I scored on debut. That is one of the most special moments of my career,” he says. Jai Ho, Jeje!
Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri on Indian football’s next big thing
Bhaichung Bhutia on Jeje
Jeje is very, very dedicated and sincere about his game. Over the years I’ve seen him really grow. His scoring ability has improved dramatically. He has hit a purple patch over the last two seasons. But he has just begun. Jeje’s best is yet to come.
It is really important that players like Jeje do well for themselves to motivate players not just from Mizoram but also from other states of the Northeast.
Jeje has the natural ability to get into the right position inside the box. At the international level, even being quicker by one second or getting ahead of your rivals by one yard makes a difference.
It is unfair to compare Sunil and Jeje. Sunil has a very different style. He can fall back to get the ball and do a one-two with his colleagues. Jeje, on the other hand, can play very well as a standalone forward. He is a strong striker who can hold the ball and connect with the midfield.
Sunil Chhetri on Jeje
I think he is the best player in the country right now. When Jeje is injury-free and fully fit, he has shown what he can do for the national team. If he is fully fit, he can be an asset to any team whether for his club or for the country. Jeje missed a lot of action a couple of years ago which was a shame. Over the last one year, when he was fully fit, Jeje scored goals for Chennaiyin, the India national team and for Mohun Bagan. He has been instrumental in helping all his teams win important championships.
Jeje Lalpekhlua Analysed: The Tie-Breaker
The woman behind his success: My mother. She has stood behind me in everything I’ve done. That’s why, when I scored three goals on Mother’s Day, I decided to dedicate the hat-trick to her.
Most satisfying football moments: When I scored twice against the Maldives in the SAFF Cup. And when I scored to help Chennai reach the semis of the Indian Super League.
The players he admires the most: Leo Messi , Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba. At 29, it is too early for Messi to retire. But even the best footballer in the world, can get emotional. The header that CR7 scored in the round of 16 during Euro 2016 was special. What I appreciate the most about Cristiano Ronaldo is his work ethic. I also love the way Didier Drogba holds the ball. I try and follow most of his games. The way he traps the ball on his chest and scores is great to watch.
Favourite football shot: The tap. It is the hallmark of a good forward. A striker needs to be positioned really well in the box to tap it home.
Favourite actors: Will Smith and Katrina Kaif (right). Her Namaste London was the first film I watched on the big screen.
Favourite musician: Bruno Mars. I could relate to the song, The long distance is killing me , on a number of times in my career when I was away from Mizoram.
Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 21, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch