When Baichung announced his retirement, football pundits across the nation started a search for his replacement. India had struggled to score in AFC Asia Cup in the absence of their talismatic captain. Baichung’s absence saw the rise of Indian Football’s next superstar- Jeje Lalpekhlua. After impressing with the U-23 team, Jeje walked into the senior team and made the second striker spot his own and cemented his place in the team. TheHardTackle places the 21 year old diminutive Mizo striker under the microscope after he was announced as the skipper of the India U-23 team and sees what is the road ahead for him
Early Life and Start of Football Career
Born on 7 January 1991 in the small village of Hnahthial in Mizoram, it would not be wrong to say that Jeje inherited football genes from his family. His father and elder brother played for a local Mizo club – The Model Sporting Club while his uncle represented Mizoram in Santosh Trophy. Jeje made his debut for the Model Sporting Club four months after his dad retired from the club.
Despite facing initial hesitation from his parents for playing football, Jeje came to light after a spectacular performance at the Wai Wai Cup held in Mizoram. On account of his strong performance Jeje made it to the Mizoram U-19 team and then, as the popular cliche goes, he never looked back. Jeje impressed youth coach Colm Toal at the U-19 selection camp in Gwalior and got selecteded for U-19 qualifiers. Jeje was then spotted by the Pune FC scouts and he signed for the Red Lizards at the tender age of 16. Jeje then went on to captain the U-19 team in the SAFF Games.
India U-23 Team And Indian Arrows : Jeje Announces his Arrival
It was with the U-23 team and Indian Arrows, both under Desmond Bulpin that Jeje announced his arrival on the big stage with prolific scoring rate. In an Olympic qualifier match against Myanmar he scored the first goal as India won 2-1 to progess to the next round. In second round Jeje proved to be a constant thorn for mighty Qatar defense and scored the first goal of the tie as India took a 1-0 lead over Qatar to their home stadium. Though India lost the tie, Jeje over the course of two matches had truly come of age. Soon Armando Colaco took note of his performance and promoted him to the second striker spot in the senior team.
The fact that Jeje had an excellent season with Arrows can be judged by the fact that he scored 13 goals in 15 matches for the Arrows in the I-League. Jeje formed a telepathic understanding with midfielders Lalrindika Ralte and Jewel Raja. Thankfully, the trio has carried same momentum to the senior team as well. Jeje scored four goals against Air-India and backed it up with a hat-trick against HAL to end as the top Indian goal-scorer of the I-League 2010-2011. He was deservedly awarded the FPAI Young Player of the year award for the season
Stint with the Senior Team
At the age of 21 Jeje is already an integral member of the national team and has forged a strong partnership with Sunil Chhetri upfront. For the first time in recent history the national team has two quality strikers who can serve the nation for years to come. Jeje made his debut against Chinese Taipei in AFC Challenge Qualifiers, scoring on his debut to give India a 1-0 lead. He followed it up with a brace against arch-rivals Pakistan and an equalizer against Turkmenistan to ensure that India topped the group. Jeje ended as the joint top-scorer of the event.
Having cemented his place , Jeje remained an integral member of the squad under Colaco as he scored a gem of goal against UAE in the Indian leg of the qualifier. SAFF cup saw Jeje score two more goals taking his tally to 8 goals from 16 matches, at a creditable strike-rate of .5 . Before SAFF cup Jeje and Sunil were invited to a week long trial at Rangers and though nothing materialized , it symbolized his growing stature in Indian Football. Jeje remains a key player and this is what U-22 coach Arthur Pappas had to say about him
Jeje is a player I have much respect for simple for the manner he conducts himself on and off the field. He is the type of character you enjoy working with as a Coach.He has a great future ahead of him and needs the correct guidance to manage his body.
In a short yet and fruitful career with Pune FC so far, Jeje has slowly established himself as a first-choice striker. Having missed most of this season due to injury, Jeje made a comeback late in last season. Before getting injured he scored crucial goals against Dempo and Sporting. Having played 28 I-League games, Jeje has scored 9 goals in the I-League so far for the Red-Lizzards. Needless to say, his best is yet to come for Pune FC.
Strengths and Contribution to National Team
Jeje’ s main strength lies in the fact that he can hold the ball and shield it – a rare quality in Indian Football players, who are more comfortable with the long ball style. Jeje’ s ability to retain possession has been a key feature in India’s latest matches and it allows other strikers to make off the ball runs . He is not shy to drop back to help the midfield, as it was evident in the match against UAE when India was reduced to 9 men. A clinical finisher, Jeje has all qualities to become a the next big thing in Indian Football
His understanding with Sunil as well as former U-23 teammates like Dika, Jewel Raja and Raju Gaikwad also augurs well for the future, as these players will form the nucleus of the team in coming years.
The Road Ahead
While many believe that Jeje is yet to properly fulfill his potential, the fact remains that he is indispensable for the Blue Tigers. Such has been Jeje’s impact on the team that they failed to score a single goal in his absence in the AFC Challenge Cup. As India looks to adopt to the possession style advocated by new coach Wim Koevermans, Jeje with his particular skill-set is set to be one of the mainstays for future.
Jeje’s experience with the senior team would be beneficial for the other U-22 players in the team, as they have already played under his captaincy before. Jeje certainly has the talent to play abroad and such a move would no doubt hone his skills. Some day he might follow the path of Baichung and Chhetri. A move abroad would definitely be on Jeje’s mind and the football fans across the nation will hope that such a move will materialize in future.
TheHardTackle family wishes Jeje Lalpekhlua best of luck for his career ahead and hopes he would bring smiles on the faces of Indian Football fans who will no doubt be keeping a close eye on him