CHENNAI: Remember the 1998 World Cup? The magic of Zinedine Zidane & Dennis Bergkamp, David Beckham getting sent off and Laurent Blanc’s golden goal? Jerry Lalrinzuala doesn’t. The pacy young Mizo was born a couple of weeks after Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup on that memorable Paris night. Yet here he is, bombing down the wings for Chennaiyin FC, one of the first names on Marco Materazzi’s team sheet.
At 18 years and a few days past three months, Jerry is the youngest player ever to start an Indian Super League game. Yet, his role in the Chennaiyin machine has been far from nominal. The left wing-back, who started as an attacking winger, was on the bench in the opener against Delhi Dynamos and came on as a second-half substitute in the next game against Atletico de Kolkata. He may have been at fault for Kolkata’s late equaliser, but Jerry’s otherwise-assured performance convinced Materazzi to start him in every game since. Seasoned campaigners like Dhanachandra Singh and Mohanraj Nallappan can’t find a place, thanks to the teenager.
Many have invoked the diminutive defender’s name when painting a rosy picture of Indian football’s future. Jerry is indeed emerging as gen-next’s posterboy — technically good with competent spatial awareness, tactically sound and good enough at 18 to keep seniors out of the side, merely by virtue of getting the basics right.
Jerry’s fairytale, though, almost never happened. If his parents — father was a policeman who once played with little success for army teams and his mother, a housewife — had their way, he would be in college with a blue collar job the ultimate ambition. “I took to the game when I was five. But my parents did not like me playing. They wanted me to study.”
Mizoram often sees trials for various age-group teams, with selected players getting to go play in various parts of the country. It was here that Jerry first decided to try his luck. He had one problem — school. “I was not allowed to go for trials because they often happened on school days and my parents insisted I never missed school,” Jerry says. “I used to dress up as normal, wear uniform and all. But inside my bag, there would not be any books. There would be boots and jersey. I was caught once and dad beat me up.”
His parents’ attitude changed when, after impressing for Mizoram youth teams, Jerry was selected for India U-14 to play in an AFC Grassroots festival in Nepal. He has not looked back, appearing for the country in all age groups before earning a training stint in FC Metz this year.
“I was really surprised by the amount of planning they put in, even in to their youth teams,” says Jerry. “They have pre-seasons even for youth teams, where they just work on fitness and never play football.”
But it was in October with Chennaiyin that Jerry’s career sprouted wings. “I found out on the day of the match against Goa that I was starting. It came as a huge surprise. But I have learnt a lot, playing with this team. Everyone, right from Materazzi to Bernard Mendy, keeps telling me that I have to improve my defending. So it is one area where I have really tried to improve.”
But what of the future? “I want to play abroad eventually,” he says. Lofty ambitions indeed, but given the pace of his development so far, it may happen sooner than later.