Born in Mizoram but made in India. It is a phrase that is often associated with Lalbiakhlua Jongte’s career trajectory that shows no sign of levelling off any time soon.
But for the coronavirus pandemic, chances are that the 17-year-old goalkeeper would have officially joined an Indian Super League (ISL) outfit now. One particular football club is understood to have signed the player and by now, it should have been announced and Jongte should have been training with his new coaches.
Then, though, football, and much of life, came to a shuddering halt and Jongte, like everyone else, has been kicking his heels at home in Lunglei for the past few weeks waiting for the new season to start. Just when that will be remains unclear. But as Jongte continues to play the waiting game he can at least reflect on what has been a breakthrough year at Indian Arrows.
His efforts in the I-League have brought membership of an exclusive club. The 45 saves he made through the campaign meant that he was leading the charts for the most saves among Indian custodians before the I-League 2019-20 season was cut short.
For Jongte, who will turn 18 in a couple of weeks time, to manage it with a team who are composed of only young Indian talent, is to his credit. To think that before joining All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Elite academy, he never actually had any formal training is almost unimaginable. It is also perhaps an indication as to why the Mizo feels that the AIFF has been such a fundamental part of his development as a footballer.
“Last season was a great learning experience, playing against top professionals in the I-League was a new experience,” the young custodian tells The Bridge. “Apart from that, as footballers, you need to keep improving everyday and that’s what I focussed on through the season. Every day it was about getting better than the previous day, and that’s what I worked on.”
Indian Arrows, AIFF’s developmental side which features in the I-League, had ended the previous campaign with the highly-rated Prabhsukhan Singh Gill between the sticks. However, following his progression to the ISL, it was felt that a more resolute keeper was needed for the launch of Venkatesh Shanmugam’s reign. With that in mind, Bengal’s Samik Mitra was given a spot in the starting XI ahead of Jongte in the first three matches but he disappointed. Jongte, fresh from helping India win the SAFF U19 Championships, was identified as a probable stronger candidate. His mentality of not worrying or thinking too much and just focussing on individual improvement was something that made a strong case for him.
He started off well, starring in a 2-1 away victory against Churchill Brothers and continued to impress but the coaches wanted more, as they explained to him. They wanted match-winning saves. They wanted a goalkeeper capable of being the difference between taking points and having to settle for a narrow defeat. And that’s exactly how the East Bengal away game transpired.
Jongte in action in the I-League (Source: AIFF)
Jongte had a superb outing as he kept his first clean sheet in the I-League and helped his team script a memorable 1-0 win. He denied the Red and Gold army time and again through the 90 minutes, saving attempts from Jaime Santos, Marcos Espada and Marti Crespi.
“I think that game was something else. All of us, as a team, played well that day. East Bengal are one of the strongest sides in the league with top-level foreigners. Then, there were some senior players like Lalrindika Ralte from my region also, so I had to pull up my game. On top of that, there was a huge crowd backing them through the match, so there was a lot of pressure,” Jongte recalls.
A long-time admirer of German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the teenager is known for coming off his line like a lion and thwarting threats. However, he knows he has to improve certain aspects and for that he has picked a new role model.
“I have been a long time admirer of Manuel Neuer but if you ask me who my current favourite goalkeeper is, then I’ll have to say it’s Ederson. I love watching him play, not only does he pull off spectacular saves but also he is tremendously good with his feet and distribution. In modern day football, distribution can be very important. I keenly observe every time Ederson is kicking out the ball from the box, I want to be as good as him when it comes to distribution.”
“As I said before, everyday we have to improve, but on a personal level, I think I have to work with my coaches and try and take in all their inputs. I need to work hard on every aspect, especially my positioning and other basic things,” he says.
“There is absolutely no pressure on me, the only solution is to work harder. That’s all I can do now, time will answer the rest,” Jongte concludes.