When the Indian national football team thrashed higher-ranked Puerto Rico 4-1 last weekend, both of their main strikers excelled – a rare incident since the turn of the decade. While Sunil Chhetri stole the limelight, Jeje Lalpekhlua also made a mark in national colours, and numbers show he is catching up fast with the other legends of Indian football.
On Saturday, aged 25 years, seven months and 27 days, Lalpekhlua hit the back of the net for the 16th time in his international career. At the same age, Chhetri, India’s highest ever goal-scorer, had netted the same number of goals, while Bhaichung Bhutia, another legend, had only ten. And Lalpekhlua is only getting better with every passing day. His goal on Saturday was also his seventh in as many appearances for India.
However, it was not destined to be this way, at least a decade ago. Born in a small Mizoram village named Hnahthial, the sturdy professional took his first lessons of the game from his father and his uncle – both of whom pursued a career in football during their youth. Lianhminga, the uncle, was particularly famous with his exploits on the right wing. While the young boy often returned home with laurels, the family finally agreed to take him to Aizawl when he turned 16.
And that is where he came across the turning point of his career.
"When he first came to my academy in 2007, he was a central defender," Ari Benjamin, Lalpekhlua’s first coach told Scroll.in in a telephonic conversation from Aizawl. "But he was exceptional with the ball even though the technique was not perfect. I thought it will be better to mould him as a striker. May be that was because I was a striker myself and I saw some qualities you need to play upfront,” he added.
That decision by an academy coach has had a big role in the country’s recent fortunes in the game. Lalpekhlua was later spotted by the Pune FC scouts and rose through the ranks to become the skipper of India’s Under-19 team. He earned his first appearance for India in the Asian Football Confederation's Challenge Cup qualifiers in 2011. The debut was nothing short of a breakthrough as Lalpekhlua scored four goals in three fixtures within the first five days of his international career.
The goals kept on coming for both club and country. Playing for the All India Football Federation’s developmental side Indian Arrows, which comprised only U-19 Indian footballers, he scored 13 goals in 15 matches in the 2010-11 I-League, including two hat-tricks against Air India and Mohun Bagan. However, a knee injury in 2012 saw him slide down the pecking order at Pune FC and made only nine starts that season.
Minor slump and redemption
While there were never any doubts about his potential, questions started creeping up on whether he will be able to live up to the hype. With the emergence of Robin Singh and Balwant Singh, he also lost the starting berth in the national team and endured forgettable campaigns for Dempo and Mohun Bagan.
However, it all changed during the last Indian Super League, when playing for Chennaiyin FC, he trumped Balwant Singh to become the main striker of the South Indian outfit and scored six goals in the high-profile competition. He kept it up in the I-League as well, netting four times, while in the last twelve months he has scored eight times for the national team.
His recent redemption has been an interesting journey. He has become much stronger, now able to shield the ball in the middle of the park and spray it to the wings. The style remains the same though and it’s about being super-efficient in the six-yard box.
Buzzing with confidence
Lalpekhlua is not a good dribbler and has little reliance on trickery. He is more of a poacher and focuses on being in the right place at the right time. High on form, he is buzzing with confidence these days and, alongside Chhetri, remains the main attacking threat for the Blue Tigers.
Off the field, he is determined to contribute to the society as well. Along with East Bengal midfielder Lalrindika Ralte, who also hails from the Lungei district, he supports and trains young footballers in his locality during vacations – an initiative that has been supported by the Football Players Association of India as well. Recently, he has also been active in providing aide to HIV patients of the state.
The 25-year-old is not the kind of footballer who would entice neutrals to the venues, but he is a delight for the faithful of the sides that he represents. Over the last couple of decades, India’s exploits in the game have been heavily dependent on its striking pairs, at first IM Vijayan-Bhaichung Bhutia and then Bhutia-Chhetri. After the retirement of Bhutia, for an extended period of 888 days that ranged from March 2013 to August 2015, no Indian forward other than Chhetri had scored a single goal.
Lalpekhlua’s coming of age is a big relief for Indian football from that aspect. If he remains focused and injury-free, the diminutive boy from Mizoram, who was born on the same day as Belgian attacker Eden Hazard, can reach unprecedented heights.