Ask anyone if Jeje Lalpekhlua can be dropped from the Indian football team on current form, and he will laugh in your face. But ask Jeje, the just-crowned All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year, and he will give you a different answer.
“In the last two years, so many new players have come into the national team set-up. There is not a single player in the team who takes his position for granted,” Jeje told IANS in a telephonic interview from Aizawl, Mizoram, his home town.
“There are so many players vying for every position in the team. Even my posiition is not secure, neither is that of Sunil (Chhetri) or anyone,” the 25-year-old Mizoram striker, who has netted a bucketfull of goals for club and country this year, added.
Jeje started the year scoring in the final of the SAFF Cup against Afghanistan. India won the tournament. The former Pune FC marksman also lifted the Federation Cup with Mohun Bagan, ending as the top scorer in the tournament with eight goals from five matches.
He played two World Cup qualifier matches in Indian colours, while also scoring two goals in friendlies. Overall, Jeje scored five times for his country. “I thank my club (Mohun Bagan) and coach (Sanjoy Sen) for my rise. I have seen myself evolve as a player after joining their ranks. I have learnt to take up more responsibilities.
“(India coach Stephen) Constantine and Chennaiyin FC (his ISL franchise) coach (Marco) Materazzi too played important roles,” Jeje said. He was equally prolific in front of the opponent’s goals in the AFC Cup, finding the back of the net six times in seven matches before Bagan were eliminated in the round of 16.
In the ISL, Jeje scored three goals for Chennaiyin, though the team failed to make it to the playoffs. “My most memorable goal was the one I scored at the Salt Lake Stadium against Tampines Rovers,” Jeje recalled when asked to pick one goal from his collection of many this term.
Jeje opened the scoring in the fifth minute in that AFC Champions League qualifier which Bagan won 3-1 to script history by becoming the first Indian club to win a qualilifying match at the highest level of Asian club football.
“It was a historic match and I felt the crowd simply adored me when I put the ball into the back of the net,” said Jeje, who was spotted by former India youth coach Colm Toal and also played for All India Football Federation’s now-defunct Pailan Arrows developmental side.
Jeje is the first from Mizoram to win the Player of the Year award and the sixth from the northeast region after Bhaichung Bhutia (Sikkim), Tomba Singh, Surkumar Singh, Gouramangi Singh (all Manipur) and Eugeneson Lyngdoh (Meghalaya). The award was instituted in 1992.
Looking ahead, Jeje said 2017 will be a very important year for the national team with the third round of 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers on the horizon. “It will be very important. We have improved our ranking (135) and anywhere you travel, people first ask you about that,” Jeje said.
“I think next year will be crucial and we have to improve our game to be able to put up a fight in the Asian Cup qualifiers. It is a young group who needs to put its best foot forward,” he signed off. The draw for the Asian Cup qualifiers will be held on January 23 and India would be playing their first match on March 28.