BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)
The meteoric rise in Mizoram football's presence in the wider Indian football conscious over the last 15-odd years has been well documented. Shylo Malsawmtluanga broke the glass ceiling after which the likes of Jerry Zirsanga, Beikhokhei Beingaichho, Robert Lalthlamuana et al followed his footsteps.
However, they lacked a constance, flcikering in and out of tales and subsequently failing to become regular members of the national team.
Come 2016 and the emergence of another 'Mizo' has broken this trend - Jeje Lalpekhlua. The 26 year-old striker became the first player from the 'Scotland of the East', after India’s 1948 Olympics captain Talimeran Ao, to skipper the Indian national team. Lalawmpuia Pachuau was the first striker to impress at national level and followed it up with an impressive but brief stint with Mohun Bagan, before fading into obscurity.
At the start of this decade, two strikers grabbed the eyeballs. By now however, Chennai City FC striker Malsawmfela has been light years behind his former Pailan Arrows teammate, fondly called Jeje. It's been a mesmerizing 2016 for the Mohun Bagan striker, who has lassoed in league titles as well as individual accolades on the national canvas.
Starting with the South Asian Football Federation's (SAFF) Championship, he went on to become an I-League runner-up with Mohun Bagan, created goal-scoring records in the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) Cup and Federation Cup, with the Mariners emerging victorious in the latter. Under the tutelage of three coaches – Sanjoy Sen, Marco Materazzi, Stephen Constantine – he turned into a poacher, almost scoring goals at will .
Jeje’s enviable scoring record is a testament to the fact that he has managed to keep the basics right. The diminutive but strongly built forward thrives on his positional sense. In this regard, he is not a Chhetri-like player, who can drop deep to claim the ball and barge into the box by playing a quick one-two. His style is closer to that of Bhaichung Bhutia, whose sublime anticipation helped him reach the right place at the right time.
The Hnahthial-born attacker also acknowledges his strengths and stresses that he wants to become a great scorer rather than being a scorer of great goals. With striking problems plaguing the national team in the recent past, his seven goals in as many matches donning the national colours brought a lot of relief to the management and fans of the Blue Tigers.
“Before my injury I was in good form for Pailan Arrows and had also scored for the national team. But the injury slowed everything down and I would say that the first season of the Indian Super League (ISL) was a turning point for me. Scoring four goals there, playing under Marco Materazzi brought confidence back to me. Then I won the I-League with Mohun Bagan and then performed well in the SAFF Championship as well. There was no looking back after that,” he'd stated.
Materazzi also stressed that the former Pune FC star has what it takes to be a sporting icon.
“I think that Jeje should not only be the best striker, but the best player in India. For the last two years now, his goals were amazing. He is a very important player not only for me but also for India as a whole and he is an icon and is the perfect man to develop football in India,” the Italian, a former World Cup winner, declared.
After the ISL had ended this year, both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were ready to break their banks to rope in the in-form striker. Though he decided to stay at Mohun Bagan, his astronomical wage reportedly made him the highest paid Indian player of the competition. While Jeje’s goal-scoring abilities were never really frowned upon, his ability to hold up play and spray passes to the flanks under pressure has added a very important dimension to his game-play.
Over the course of the next few years, the striker will face a fierce competition to keep his place in the national team. While Robin Singh will offer a different dimension of skills, winning aerial duels with foreign defenders, Balwant Singh will cut the figure of a tireless worker, sniffing at every possible half-chance. To retain his place as the new poster boy of Indian football, Jeje will have to keep on scoring and it will be interesting to see whether he finds any suitors in European Leagues like his two seniors.