"Till about class 10, I was not following Indian football", says Jeje Lalpekhlua
Jeje had as good a start in national colours as anyone could have, scoring on debut in 2011 against Chinese Taipei in a 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualification match. Unfortunately, a knee injury the next year waylaid him and put him on the shelf for an elongated period of time.
“Yes, as a footballer, injuries are the worst you know. Not just for footballers, but for any sportsperson. Before 2012 I made my debut for the Indian national team in 2011. I scored a goal in the first game and one more after that and played SAFF Cup. In that year I played 15 matches, scored 13 goals (on loan at Pailan Arrows from Pune FC). I also got FPAI (Football Professionals Association of India) Best Young Player award (2010-11), so I did quite well in that time.
“After coming back to Pune I had my injury and was out for more than one year and it was very difficult to come back like before. That was one of the most important times (for me) as a player, you have to work hard because during that time, sometimes in the night I couldn't sleep because of the injured knee”, said Jeje about the tough times.
Coming back from the injury with a bang
Coming back from that setback though, the striker has hit a purple patch in terms of form and success as the goals have come and so have the trophies. In an astonishing two-year spell, Jeje has won four tournaments in a row that he's taken part in - the i-league with Mohun Bagan in 2014-15, the ISL with Chennaiyin in 2015 and the Federation Cup (in which he was top scorer and adjudged Best Player) with Bagan this year. To go with that, he was part of the winning Indian team at the SAFF Cup last year. And in recognition of his efforts, he was named the FPAI Indian Footballer of the Year at the end-of-season awards in May this year.
“Whenever I got to the ground, all my friends were playing and I was sitting out (during the injury), so it was very frustrating. Finally, God helped me, though. I did a lot of hard work and came back, went to Dempo, then went to Mohun Bagan, got the trophy. Within two years I got four trophies, my dreams came true.
“When I was in Pune FC, six years I was there, I never won a single trophy. I went to Dempo because it was a big club, thinking that I could win maybe one trophy. But it finally happened with Bagan, then Chennaiyin. This is one of the best phases of my football career.”
Jeje has made a mark with his goals for both club and country. We asked him what his favourite moment yet has been, both at national and club level.
Pat comes the reply, “When I scored against Chinese Taipei in my debut match, that has to be one of my best moments.”
“With both Chennaiyin and Mohun Bagan, lifting the league trophy was a great achievement and an amazing moment”, said the 25-year-old.
Jeje has grown remarkably as a player in his two seasons of ISL, scoring four goals in the first and bagging six goals and three assists in last year's title-winning run. For his exploits, he was awarded the ISL Emerging Player of the Tournament award. Both Chennaiyin FC coach Marco Materazzi and co-owner Abhishek Bachchan have spoken highly about the striker, in particular about how this shy boy from Mizoram turned into a potent finisher in front of goal. Jeje points out the people at the club who were instrumental in his rise.
“Yes, especially in the first year and second year, Elano. I did lot of finishing practice with him. After regular practice, we would stay back to do finishing practice. Even Marco has given me a lot of confidence and opportunities, I would like to thank him for that”, the striker said.
The boisterous fans have come up with a chant for their 'Namma Jeje’, singing “Jeje’s on fire…”, based on the Will Griggs chant from the Northern Irish fans. Jeje, however, is focused on the task at hand for his club who have made yet another slow start while on a personal level, he is yet to score as well.
“We have played two matches, but you know the result, one draw and one loss. Now, our next match is on the 13th, we did a lot of hard work in training to correct the mistakes from the last two matches. Now we’re ready to get the three points and go out there and kill it.”
Chennaiyin did go on to do just that as they registered their first win of the season with a 2-0 defeat of FC Goa. And despite not playing any part on the night, the result definitely pleased Jeje and he knows that his opportunities will come in yet another ISL season that is only just getting started.
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