On September 3 of this year, the Indian national football team played it's first game at their newest home, granting the Mumbai Football Arena in Andheri, Mumbai it's international debut and christening it with an impressive 4-1 win over Puerto Rico in a friendly match.
While the venue was a new one, the match being the first in Mumbai in nearly 60 years, the names on the scoresheet were familiar. Jeje Lalpekhlua of Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC was on the board yet again, scoring India's third that evening with a header from close range. He could have easily had a hat-trick in fact, but his solitary goal did continue what has been an amazing streak that now stands at seven goals in his last seven internationals for India.
“Yeah, it has all happened because of my hard work. I did a lot of practice with my teams (national and club). And after that I would do some of my own training, shooting practice and finishing practice. It's all because of that”, says the 25-year-old as we caught up with him this past week before Chennaiyin FC’s third match of the 2016 Indian Super League against FC Goa.
The scoring run is all the more impressive when you consider that between 11 December 2011 and 8 August 2015, the forward didn't have a single goal, largely due to injury and subsequent recovery.
Support from family leads to Jeje’s success
The name 'Jeje’ rolls off of the tongues of both Chennaiyin FC fans and Indian football fans quite easily these days as the forward has become a fan favourite at every level. Jeje’s (we’re going to go with that as opposed to his surname) initiations into the game of football came as a result of both his father and uncle being footballers, having played at club level and state level for Mizoram. And Jeje has no doubts whatsoever when it comes to the reasons for his success.
“For me, what I am right now is because of my family, the support from my family. Whatever sport I played (Jeje mentions he was into a lot of sports and played a good bit of badminton), they supported me and because of them, I am here. I think this is very important for kids. Right now, some of my friends are also facing this problem, the family not supporting them, it's like that in India. But right now the situation is changing, families are supporting the kids. I think this needs to be done with all the families”, Jeje mentions with a sense of hope.
These days the North-east has become a major hub for football in India and Jeje’s home state of Mizoram is amongst its leaders. Yet it wasn't always so and when it comes to Mizo football, one name stands tall when it comes to breakthroughs. In 2002, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, popularly known as 'Mama’, became the first ever player from Mizoram to play professional club football outside of Mizoram. Jeje remembers those days well.
“Till about class 10, I was not following Indian football, I was following only Mizoram football. I only knew Mama in the I-league.”
“That year, there was a friendly match organised in Aizawl with state players from Mizoram playing against players from outside (Mizo players playing outside their state). One day in the paper, I saw that they put the names of all the players from outside Mizoram, and I saw Mama's name, playing with all these players”, Jeje mentions.
“I saw the photo and I wanted to be there, like him. I cut out the picture and put it on my wall, one day I wanted to do be like him too. Every day when I saw that picture, I wanted to be there. From then is where I started my aim in football. I would see Mama on the TV and want to play like him for a big club like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan. From that moment on I made up my mind to become a professional footballer”, Jeje recalls fondly.
And a few years later, Jeje would face off against Mama on a similar stage. In 2007 at Aizawl, Jeje would take to the field, playing for the Mizoram XI in a friendly match against East Bengal featuring Mama.
He says he didn't get to talk much to him that day but spoke of him in high regard saying that to this day they are good friends and that he's a “very nice guy.”