“Jeje is the best player in the country right now. He has been outstanding for the country and whenever he plays we find ourselves in a comfortable position. He is going to take us places.”
If winning back-to-back AIFF Player of the Year awards isn't enough proof for Jeje Lalpekhlua's abilities, then those words of Sunil Chhetri, one of India's greatest footballers of all time, would leave no room for doubt.
Scorer of one-third of India's goals in their last 10 matches, Jeje has completed his transition from a young prodigy to being a top notch footballer.
There's honesty and sincerity about the way he plays on the field, but even when off it, nothing much changes. When you sit down to talk with him, he will answer everything with the same level of honesty.
'Hard work' are words you'll hear a lot when he speaks. There's hardly any surprise though. He has built his football career around it, and it has become such an integral part of his life that you might even hear him saying that while he's asleep.
Firstpost caught up with him during his visit to Mumbai for an I-League match against Mohun Bagan in March, and the mercurial striker opened up about his childhood, early days in the game, comparisons with Bhaichung Bhutia, a career-threatening injury and what culminated in the double Player of the Year award that we see today.
FP: Jeje, you have won the AIFF Player of the Year twice, you have won the Young Player of the Year award before, you have won the I-League, won the ISL, you have scored the same number of goals for the national team as Sunil Chhetri when he was of your age. You have achieved almost everything as a player. So on a day-to-day basis, what keeps you going?
Jeje: The main thing is that I want to achieve more every day, every year. I am working really hard in training to learn something new every day. I don't play for awards, I want to score goals and help my team in every way possible. I think that’s the most important thing for me.
FP: You said in an interview before that had it not been for football you would have been a badminton player. Did you always plan to become a football player?
Jeje: No, I never thought about football because I didn’t know how football was. I saw Mama (Shylo Malsawmtluanga) on TV when he played for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a footballer. But before I had never heard about Indian football, I never knew who Bhaichung (Bhutia) was. It was only after I saw Mama I wanted to be a football player and after I finished my school, I started my career as a footballer.
FP: Did you initially plan to play badminton or any other sport?
Jeje: I played a lot of sports like badminton and table tennis when I was in school and whenever I played I used to get gold medals and prizes. So maybe not badminton, some other sport (sic), but I always wanted to be a sportsman.
FP: When you started your football journey, did you start off as a striker?
Jeje: No, when I used to play for my local team, I used to play as a left-back or centre-back. But when I went to One Academy in Aizawl my father suggested that I should play as a striker.
FP: Any reason for that?
Jeje: My uncle was a footballer and he used to play as a striker. He was a good player. He used to play for the Mizoram team and was very famous. So I thought it’s good to be a striker. If you score, your name is in the papers and it’s easy to get famous.
FP: When you went out of Mizoram to play football for the first time in 2007 what adjustments did you have to make? What challenges did you face?
Jeje: When I joined Pune FC which was my first club outside Mizoram, I was very young and the management was very important during that stage. If they help a player, he can improve. If they don’t support (him) it becomes difficult for a young player. The officials, managers and coaches at Pune FC supported me a lot. Whatever they could do for me, they did it. The coach, especially, taught me a lot there and that was very important for me.
FP: Did the coaches outside Mizoram ask you to make any adjustments to your game?
Jeje: No it was not like that. Like I said, I always want to improve, so I worked very hard in training. So from the first day I joined Pune FC, I gave my hundred percent. If you work hard, the coach takes interest in you and knows what your ability is and what you can do.
FP: Was there any one coach who influenced your career the most in your younger days?
Jeje: Yes, Colin Toal, the U-19 Indian team coach. He was the man who made me a better player. He taught me everything. During the national team camp I got an injury and faced a lot of problems. He kept believing in me and gave me many chances to play in the junior national team. He means everything for me and is the most important manager in my career so far.
FP: You scored on your senior national team debut in 2011, then you scored a lot of goals for Palian Arrows. Everyone was talking about you, some called you the next Bhaichung Bhutia. How was the feeling then? Did it add pressure?
Jeje: It was good for me. But when they compared me with Bhaichung Bhutia, I felt it was very early to do that. I still had a long way to go. He had achieved a lot. So it was early to compare me with Bhaichung Bhutia. But I like the way he fought on the pitch, the way he played against the opponent defenders, especially inside the box. I never feel any pressure because his game is different to mine. He is Bhaichung and I am Jeje, but I’m happy people compare me with him.
FP: You had a very bad injury that kept you out of action for the entire 2012. It must have been very frustrating. How did you get over those negative feelings?
Jeje: It was the worst time in my football career. At the start I had to work very hard. For almost one year I was out of football and when I came back I got injured again. (In the) Last three years I have been fine, I have been fit. But when you suffer an injury it’s very hard for a footballer. There were times when I thought I couldn’t play again. I have spent many sleepless nights thinking about it. But that’s football. Life is up and down sometimes. However, I must say, I learned a lot from that injury.
FP: From that point to what you are right now, how did you regain what you lost?
Jeje: Getting back the confidence is very difficult. I played more games. It was very important to get sharper every game I played. After Pune I went to Dempo for a year. Arthur Papas was the coach there that time. He gave me chances to play and I played many games there. Then I came back to Mohun Bagan and I won the I-League. Like I said, it’s very important to work hard and I put in a lot of effort in the gym and ground. That’s why I’m here.
FP: So you never gave up?
Jeje: Never. Whenever I thought I had a problem or didn’t have a good game I used to work more. I used to tell myself that I need to do more. Then the next day I worked extra after training to improve.
FP: What is the difference between the young Jeje Lalpekhlua and the back-to-back AIFF Player of the Year winner whom we see now?
Jeje: When I was younger, I scored a few goals, but I’m more matured now. Now I know how to move, how to keep the ball, how to stay inside the box and how to help the team build attacks. Right now I'm calmer when the ball comes to me inside the box and I know what to do to put the ball in the back of the net. That's the difference now.
FP: You once said you always wanted to play in teams like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan when you saw Mama play. How does it feel to finally play there now?
Jeje: I wanted to join Mohun Bagan or East Bengal from the time I joined the U-19 national team. Since then I got offers from them almost every year. But I spoke to many senior players and they said it was early (for me) to go and play in Kolkata. I played for Pune FC for five years, then one year at Palian Arrows and one at Dempo. After that I felt I was good enough to play in Kolkata, so I took a decision to sign with Mohun Bagan.
FP: What are the benefits of playing at these clubs?
Jeje: Kolkata football is different. If you want to enjoy football, go there and see. The support that they have for their teams, the love and especially the respect that you get for the game in Kolkata is quite amazing.
FP: At Chennaiyin FC and Mohun Bagan you play with many top attacking players. What have you learned from them?
Jeje: I have played with some really good players, but more importantly, they are very good human beings. Sony (Norde), Katsumi (Yusa), (Stiven) Mendoza, Elano. I still speak with Elano and Mendoza sometimes. I learned a lot especially from Elano. After practice he used to teach me how I must move as a striker, when to stay inside the box, when to hold the ball, when to pass. He told me that whenever the wingers gets the ball, I must always be inside the box.
FP: Do you idolise any international footballer? Do you try to follow him and learn from the way he plays his game?
Jeje: My favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo. I like the way he works so hard. I follow him because of his hard work. But in terms of the game, I love the way Didier Drogba plays. The way he keeps the ball and holds it up is fantastic. As a striker that’s very important for a team. The striker needs to hold the ball to get support and that way you can threaten opponents. Hence, for the way he plays, I like to watch Drogba.
FP: So do you prefer to play as a lone striker or with a partner?
Jeje: I don’t care if I have to play as a lone striker or with a partner. It depends on the coach. It's different you know. Some days I enjoy playing as a lone man (upfront) while sometimes with another striker. It also depends on the opponents.
FP: The coming days are going to be very crucial for all the teams you play for, especially the national team. What is your target?
Jeje: For whichever team I play, I want to score as many goals as possible. I want to give more than hundred percent. I hope to work hard and deliver. I don’t have any goal target, but I want to win the trophies whether I’m with Mohun Bagan or Chennaiyin FC.
FP: When you retire, how do you want your fans to remember you?
Jeje: It’s difficult to say. Firstly, I want to be remembered as a good person and a friendly guy. In terms of my game, I want to be remembered as a player who worked very hard, scored a lot of goals and one who always wanted to win.
Updated Date: Jun 13, 2017 13:27 PM