Jeje Lalpekhlua, 20, turns out in the No. 10 blue jersey for the Indian national football squad, a number associated with such legendary names as Pelé, Diego Maradona and Ferenc Puskás, to name a few. Probe him on his favourite among the No. 10s and he flashes a bright smile before replying, “Messi”. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, remains his favourite; he has “liked him for a long time”.
In 2011, the Jeje Lalpekhlua-Sunil Chhetri combine has emerged as a promising striking partnership for India. It was all too evident in the recently concluded South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Cup in New Delhi, where the pair was instrumental in India’s defence of the title they won in 2009. The success is creditable since it came after the retirement of India’s mainstay over the years, striker Bhaichung Bhutia.
Lalpekhlua was selected for the national team in 2011 with the intention of grooming younger players who could fill the void created by Bhutia’s exit. Bhutia himself maintains that Lalpekhlua and Chhetri are the best strike partners in the country.
Striker: Jeje Lalpekhlua (L)scored a goal in the Saff championship final (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
While Chhetri did the bulk of the scoring through the Saff tournament, Lalpekhlua’s contributions came in the guise of furious runs and clinical crosses, besides two of the nine goals the pair ended up with in the Saff Cup; nine out of the total 16 scored by India in the tournament.
“Chhetri is a nice guy,” says Lalpekhlua. “He has always encouraged me; him, Climax (Lawrence), Mahesh (Gawli), everyone has been supportive ever since I joined the national side.”
Prior to the Saff Cup, Lalpekhlua and Chhetri had attended trials for the Glasgow-based football club, Rangers FC, in November. “It was a really cold week in Glasgow, and it took me time to adjust to the weather there,” Lalpekhlua says. He was most impressed with the speed of European football. If he does get selected for the Scottish club, it will only reinforce what many believe—that Lalpekhlua is a player to watch out for in the future.
Lalpekhlua first played for the national side in March during the AFC Challenge Cup 2011 qualifiers in Malaysia. He made the debut memorable by registering a goal against Chinese Taipei, launching his international career with élan.
Hailing from Hnahthial in Mizoram, Lalpekhlua remembers fiddling with the football at a small ground not far from his house. Always good in all sports, he confesses to not having paid a lot of attention to football during his childhood. Since his father insisted that he devote himself to academics till he cleared class X, it was only in 2006 that Lalpekhlua attended his first football camp, at the Ari Football Academy in Aizawl.
By 2007, he had been selected to represent Mizoram as part of the Under-19 national team. Although an ankle injury kept him away from competition for two months, Pune FC picked Lalpekhlua to appear for them in the I-League the same year. He spent three years at the club, “honing my skills and learning”.
In 2010, he joined the Indian Arrows (now called the Pailan Arrows), an All India Football Federation (Aiff) experiment—a team comprising players under 23 that would compete in the I-League against the cream of Indian club football. Although the first few matches, which threw a relatively inexperienced side against seasoned and stronger teams, left him a bit unsettled, Lalpekhlua says he became more confident with time. “I liked the concept. Our coach and the practice sessions at Gurgaon helped me improve my overall game, especially my finishing.”
Lalpekhlua says he is focusing on polishing his finishing skills for now. His pace across the turf and ball control are signs of a player getting in command of his game, while his assists to Chhetri during the Saff Cup testify to his quick eye and team spirit.
Lalpekhlua believes the current Indian team is a skilled unit which is functioning well, and maintains that a little more strength and pace will take them a long way in world football.
His camaraderie with the teams both at Pune FC, the club he plays for, and the national level doesn’t impede his individuality as a player. On the field, he is much his own man, “playing my own game”, as he puts it.