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India football star Jeje Lalpekhlua's long road back to fitness

India and SC East Bengal striker Jeje Lalpekhlua speaks to Lounge about coming back from a career-threatening injury in time for the new Indian Super League season

Jeje Lalpekhlua, pictured here playing for India, missed the entire 2019-20 ISL season through injury. (Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images)

When a 21-year-old Jeje Lalpekhlua collided with a goalkeeper during an I-League match in 2012, he didn’t make much of a fuss about the niggle he felt in his knee. He was an up-and-coming young Indian striker for Pune FC, and he wanted to play as much as possible. The team’s coach Derrick Pereira had taken a liking to Jeje’s playing style, and the player wasn’t going to risk his place in the team. But although he didn’t know it at the time, Jeje’s left knee would never be the same again.

Seven years later, and before the 2019-20 Indian Super League (ISL) season, Jeje—then playing for Chennaiyin FC—decided to go in for a surgery. He was fed up with the old injury flaring up time and again, forcing him to sometimes play while on painkillers. Initially, he was hoping to be back in action by November 2019. That turned into December 2019. But he eventually missed the entirety of the 2019-20 season and much more: his last club appearance came 560 days ago on April 30, 2019. His last played for India in January 2019. “This has been the lowest point of my career,” he says.

Jeje had to go through a process known as loose body removal from the meniscus using arthroscopy. In medical terms, “loose bodies in the knee joint are small fragments of cartilage or bone that move freely around the knee in joint fluid.” The symptoms are extremely uncomfortable, and include the feeling of something moving in the knee while blocking movement.

“The problem was compounded by the fact that it was an old injury. Back in 2012, the facilities weren’t like today, and I didn’t have a good recovery,” says Jeje, who has now signed for latest ISL entrants, SC East Bengal (the 2020-21 ISL season begins on 20 November). This time, Jeje wasn’t taking any risks. He went to Italy for his rehabilitation under Dr Silio Musa, who has treated high-profile football players like World Cup winner Francesco Totti. “The techniques were slightly different from the usual physiotherapy,” says Jeje, who did part of his rehabilitation at the Centre for Sports Science in Chennai.

Jeje Lalpekhlua training with SC East Bengal. (Photo courtesy SC East Bengal)
Jeje Lalpekhlua training with SC East Bengal. (Photo courtesy SC East Bengal)

For most athletes, especially those in team sports, rehabilitation of the knee includes thousands of repetitions of the same exercises, over and over again, while progressively adding resistance. The knee has to be trained to first facilitate walking, then running, and finally playing. It’s a frustrating and painful process. But more than the physical pain, it is the mind which one has to master: the boredom, the silence, the fear of never being the same again, and that of being forgotten. As his teammates play and go through the ups and downs of football, all Jeje could do was watch.

“A few times, I had to switch off the television. It’s not the nicest feeling to watch your friends play while you’re in bed. And later, when you are in a big building doing your exercises while the team is together. It gets lonely, and you need to be constantly positive, and try not to let your mind go over to the dark side,” he says. It helped that the fans were there to remind him that they were still thinking of him. After all, Jeje is Chennaiyin’s all-time top-scorer in the ISL with 23 goals, and only behind Sunil Chhetri among the all-time Indian goalscorers in the tournament.

Once some movement returned to his knee, the 29-year-old spent time back home in Mizoram as well, as uncertainty about sporting events continued throughout the pandemic-enforced lockdown.

“I had to use things in the house sometimes for exercising, especially the upper body. I would workout after breakfast, then play with the kids of the family, and then go cycling. I think that really helped, getting out on my bike with my friends. It worked as my mobility exercise and was mentally refreshing. Sometimes I would cycle to nearby villages in the evening, alone with my thoughts,” he says.

This was in addition to the 90 minutes of daily rehab while he inched closer to returning to normal training. “It was still better than when I was in Chennai at the start of recovery. Those were days where I would spend four to five hours in rehab. The morning was spent releasing the muscles, followed by exercises with the trainer, and swimming and pool work. Then go home, sleep, and go back to the gym.”

Jeje went through periods of resentment. Doctors had initially said that he would be probably ready to train in four months, and that time came and went, and there were more delays. “The national team would call you up for an update on the injury, and I had to keep saying that I’m not yet there. To say no to India even though it made sense was very hard. There were days I was mulling over what I would do if I didn’t get back to playing again. Then I would think of bigger examples and take inspiration: like (the Brazilian) Ronaldo who also had a lot of knee trouble.”

While playing for Chennaiyin FC, Jeje Lalpekhlua scored 23 goals in the ISL, and won the tournament twice. (Photo: Getty Images)
While playing for Chennaiyin FC, Jeje Lalpekhlua scored 23 goals in the ISL, and won the tournament twice. (Photo: Getty Images)

But there were the days when he would just get tired of the routine. “On the lowest days, you don’t want to do rehab. It’s the same routine. But that is where your mentality comes in: you have to think of your knee, you have to think of not losing at this, not after everything you’ve already given.” Despite this, Jeje says he didn’t miss a single day of rehab.

Once declared fit to return to training, the ‘Mizo Sniper’ had an array of offers on the table after being released by Chennaiyin, the club with which he’s won two ISL titles. He chose East Bengal, with Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler at the helm of the team.

“That feeling of touching the grass, touching a ball, it’s just amazing. I can’t quite explain it in words. But sometimes when you are made to run in training and you complain? Now I don’t do that. Because when you come back after a serious injury, you appreciate how lucky you are to just run. Now I train as if every session is my last.”

Jeje says he’s come out of this a stronger person. He is now seen as a senior and experienced member in dressing rooms. “I tell the boys that for the smallest problem, go to a doctor, talk about it. Youngsters, especially if the coach is playing you, want to beat the pain barrier and keep going. But that can result in long-term damage.”

His return will be much anticipated, more so because East Bengal play ATK Mohun Bagan in their first ISL fixture. “I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, but myself. It is a new club, a new challenge, and I want to give everything. What I hope for most is to give the fans good memories of our first season.”

    12.11.2020 | 10:04 AM IST

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