Jeje Lalpekhlua: The Mizo who doesn’t want Aizawl to become I-League champions
The 26-year-old will have his allegiances put to the test in Saturday's big clash between Aizawl and Mohun Bagan.
A little glance at the Mohun Bagan squad will give you an idea. An idea of how Jeje Lalpekhlua, their star striker, will have his allegiances put to the test when the Mariners take to the field against Aizawl FC on Saturday afternoon.
Jeje, whose birthplace of Hnahthial is about 100 miles from Aizawl’s home ground Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, opened up on the emotions going through the people close to him as the striker comes home to what could be a title-deciding day of the 2016/17 I-League season.
“They [his near and dear ones] are a bit perplexed at the moment whether to come and cheer for me and my team on Saturday or for Aizawl FC, the home team,” Jeje wrote in the Times of India.
That points to Jeje’s catch-22 situation, but one where there is only one side he can take. The 26-year-old would have cheered Aizawl on had he not been a professional footballer, given the scale of the task the Reds have accomplished so far this season, but he is bound by duty.
Perhaps Jeje is the only Mizo who wouldn’t want Aizawl to win this season’s I-League title. That gives an indication of how far Aizawl have come to be in the reckoning for the top prize in Indian football. The reigning FPAI Indian Player of the Year, Jeje is among many other players from Mizoram who outgrew the clubs in their state and moved on to the bigger, richer clubs.
Well-known players from Mizoram like Jeje, East Bengal’s Lalrindika Ralte and Robert Lalthlamuana, and Bengaluru FC’s Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Sena Ralte to name a few, don’t ply their trade in their home state because of the better incentives on offer and greater visibility at the biggest clubs in the country.
However, Aizawl’s rise against the grain this season has threatened to alter the landscape of Indian football. It is their success that can help a club of Aizawl’s ilk — among the bottom clubs in terms of finances — keep the next Jeje Lalpekhlua from leaving for greener pastures in mainland India.
The passion in the region is there for all to see; complementing it with success could be a recipe for the future of Indian football.
“Their [Aizawl FC’s] fans immediately mark out Aizawl FC from the rest among clubs in Indian football. The noisy crowd makes life tougher for any visiting team when you play in Aizawl. Credit must go to the club management as they have shown how to garner a stable and energetic fan base around the club and team.
“There can’t be a finer advertisement of Indian football than the sight of thousands of female supporters rubbing shoulders with the regular male fans, thronging the stadium and leading the chanting in the stands all in support of their beloved team — be it a home match or an away fixture,” Jeje added further.
Despite his words of praise for Saturday’s opponents, Jeje will be fully aware of not letting his emotions get the better of himself at Aizawl on Saturday. The striker looked out of sorts and far from his best during Mohun Bagan’s midweek AFC Cup defeat to Maziya of Maldives.
The India international has scored only five times in eight appearances this season, suggesting that he still has got that striker’s eye for goal, but Bagan may have lessened their dependence on him. Scottish striker Darryl Duffy has been the main man up front for the Mariners this season, while Balwant Singh has also had an impressive goal return.
However, it is no secret that Jeje remains one of India’s best poachers. All it needs is one perfect swing of a Bagan striker’s boot to deal a blow to Aizawl’s title challenge. Should Jeje be that difference-maker, all the narratives about Aizawl and their unlikely run to the title could end on an anti-climactic note.
“As a professional, the onus is on us to repay the faith of the thousands of Mariners and retain the trophy. Mohun Bagan would play the game as if it’s their last game on Earth to get the three points — possibly most important three points of our life until now.”
The focus for Jeje is clearly on winning the title with Bagan. As Aizawl’s midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna noted, the Mariners striker will only be a footnote in the grander scheme of things for Aizawl and, possibly, the whole of Mizoram.
“I don’t think so [there will be a split among supporters because of Jeje]. Jeje is one of the best Indian players now and he is from Mizoram, so definitely he will get people’s love but I’m sure we will get wholehearted support,” said the Syrian.
Whether Jeje can kill the title race on Saturday remains to be seen, but looking both ways, Mizo football stands to gain the most from this I-League season — either with Aizawl FC or with Jeje.