While most 21-year-olds are wrestling with professional beginnings or struggling with college syllabi, Jeje Lalpekhlua's been spinning circles around defenders on the football pitch. The Pune FC striker made his debut for the senior national team in March last year during the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers where he netted four times over three matches. With a debut like that, it was not much of a surprise that the diminutive Mizo's been compared as a worthy successor to Indian legend Bhaichung Bhutia and even underwent a trial with Rangers FC in Glasgow last month.
"2011 was a very special year for me because of the success that came my way. But comparisons to Bhaichung Bhutia have come too early as I still have a long way to go," Lalpekhlua, who turned 21 on Saturday, told HT.The son of a government employee and a businesswoman from south Mizoram, Lalpekhlua took to football early on. After playing the Wai Wai Cup held by the state while with Aizwal's Ari Academy, Lalpekhlua made it to the ranks of the Mizoram Under-19 team from where he went on to feature in the national U-19 squad. Pune FC came calling in 2008 and after a stint with the All-India Football Federation's (AIFF) youth development squad - the Indian Arrows - last season, he has been a regular starting member of the national team. "I have to thank coach Desmond (Bulpin) a lot for helping through my days at the club," Lalpekhlua continued. "He motivated me and helped improve my game which resulted in my good form last year through the matches after I was selected for the senior team. Sunil (Chhetri) bhai has been giving me pointers since I started playing with him."
"His stocky build allows him to shield the ball well, often against two players at a time. Also, his ability to shoot from range with either foot serves him well. ," said India coach Savio Medeira under whom Lalpekhlua's been training since November last year. "If his commitment to the game stays the same then he will be a star. This year can be a great one if he stays injury-free."
Asked about what he feels 2012 will have in store, Lalpekhlua, who is also an adept badminton and table-tennis player, said, "I have to work harder while keeping the belief to know I can be better. Expect more goals!"