On Thursday, not long after he arrived in the capital city of Mizoram, Jeje Lalpekhlua posted a picture on Facebook. "Home calling Aizawl," he captioned the photograph -- of himself and a group of his Mohun Bagan teammates at a restaurant. The post quickly picked up 2,600 'likes'. Among the top comments was one by Ramngaihzuala Chhangte, a medical officer in Aizawl. "Welcome home Jeje, the pride of Mizoram," Chhangte's message read. "But this time we are going to support Aizawl FC. I hope you understand."
The post captured some of the emotional turmoil this small football-crazy state must feel ahead of Aizawl FC's match on Saturday afternoon against Mohun Bagan. The winner of the match, between the two top-of-the-table teams, will likely decide the victor of the I-League. Aizawl FC, Mizoram's solitary team in India's premier domestic football league, has never won the title. And in what must be a rather cruel irony for the state's football fans, it is another local hero, Jeje, who stands in their way.
The home crowd at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium has experience with Mizo players coming back wearing colours other than the blood red of Aizawl. Last season Shylo Malsawmtluanga, the first Mizo to play professionally when he was picked by East Bengal in 2002, played his first national league match in Mizoram in opposition colours. The same year Aizawl suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Bengaluru FC owing to an inspired display by visiting Mizoram-born goalkeeper Lalthuammawia Ralte, who was declared the best player of the match. Neither of those matches, however, had as much at stake as Saturday's match. And while Malsawmtluanga was a pioneer, neither he nor Ralte occupy the same space in Mizoram's sporting consciousness as Jeje.
Jeje is easily the biggest sporting icon in Mizoram. He has already won the I-League (with Bagan in 2015) and the ISL (with Chennaiyin FC later that year). The striker is a near-permanent fixture on the national team with 17 goals from 39 matches. He would have already played in last season but was away on national duty. He has already been one of the mainstays of Bagan's charge at the title this season with five goals.
Now though, he is looking forward to his homecoming. "This is the only press conference where I can speak in Mizo, so I'm going to answer in Mizo," he said after a question was posed to him at the pre-match press conference on Friday. "It's wonderful to be returning to my hometown," Jeje would say later. Ever since he left Mizoram after being picked for the India U-19 squad, the now 26-year-old Jeje has never played an I-League match in his home state.
This will be a first for his family from Hnahthial, about 172km from Aizawl, too. "My family is coming for tomorrow's game," he says. "This is the first time my family will watch me play. It's a four-hour drive to Aizawl but my family will take a car to come to watch me play. They have to."
Jeje expects his family at least to cheer for him. "If Aizawl FC were playing anyone else, they would support them," he says. "But tomorrow, they will want Mohun Bagan to win." Owing to their allegiance, Jeje's mother, father and uncle will be massively outnumbered among the 20,000 souls crammed into the bleachers at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium. A WhatsApp message hoping Jeje scores an own goal is doing the rounds in the city. The comments on his Facebook page are of a similar sentiment.
For its part, Aizawl FC itself is maintaining a modicum of restraint. "The club has no thinking on this [how Jeje playing for Bagan should be responded to]," says Pu Hmingchunga, a member of the board of governors of Aizawl FC. "We welcome him, every time he is welcomed here. But he's an opponent."
Jeje says he knows it will be a hard match. "Aizawl's fans are very passionate," he says. "This is one of the hardest venues to win in." But not many are willing to bet that he will crack. "I think only emerging players tend to feel that pressure," says Vivek Nagul, former Under-19 coach of Pune FC who later worked with Jeje when he was Chennaiyin's assistant coach in the ISL. "When you are an established player, and have had exposure to playing outside in big clubs, they you become more professional."
When he meets fans personally though, Jeje says he doesn't get as much hate. "I've met Aizawl FC fans," he says. "They tell me, 'We know that a lot of people are not supporting you. If they are saying bad things about you, forget it, we love you.'"
Indeed, he himself understands a bit of what Mizo fans are going through. "I have supported Aizawl FC too but I have to win it for Mohun Bagan," Jeje says. "I'm here to win three points and the I-League title for Mohun Bagan. I'm going to give everything I can for them."