There are no street lights on the tiny lanes leading up to Rahul KP's house in Thrissur. It's seven in the evening, but the area has been plunged into darkness—tell-tale signs of a city that sleeps early and wakes up even earlier.
On Monday night, though, sleep is the last thing on the minds of Rahul's parents Praveen Kannoly and Bindu Praveen. Their son is about to play in only his second FIFA U-17 World Cup match.
If the atmosphere at Rahul's house is twitching with anxiety, there is a full-blown case of nerves in the neighbouring house. Pradeep KB, Praveen's brother, is the reason Rahul continued playing football despite his parents' disapproval. Like most middle-class parents, they wanted him to get a stable job. Preferably a government one.
However, Rahul's talent soon had the final say.
"Growing up, playing football was a part of life. I played for a local club called Alukkas and attended many camps. I would drag Rahul along with me to all the camps or matches so that he could watch and play. That was how he got his interest in the sport. I even trained him initially. I was adamant that what I couldn't achieve in life through football, Rahul must," Pradeep, who drives an autorickshaw in Thrissur, tells Firstpost.
Thrissur is the 20th largest city in the country and yet everyone seems to know where 'Rahul the Indian footballer' lives. The city is as famous for its Thrissur Pooram festival—the mother of all temple festivals—as it is for being the hometown of Malayalam actors Biju Menon and Bhavana.
However, the biggest gifts from the city to the country are its footballers. CV Pappachan and IM Vijayan are among those that have emerged from this land. When the World Cup began on 6 October, another name was added to that list: Rahul KP.
Back at the Rahul household, with minutes to go for the match, it's time for the pre-match ritual. Pradeep lights up a string of firecrackers and the neighbourhood suddenly comes alive. More than 20 of Rahul's friends have crammed themselves in Pradeep's tiny living room to watch the match. The close relatives find room in Praveen's house with assorted journalists.
Pradeep's house erupts each time Rahul touches the ball. In the other house, his father and mother are too nervous for words.
If you think playing for the country with thousands of eyes bearing down upon you is tough, try being a parent when your son is on national duty in another city.
Rahul, who had been one of the star performers for India in the 0-3 defeat to USA, had been moved from defence to the left flank against Colombia. His task on the night was to fill the boots of Komal Thatal, the boy who had impressed everyone against USA. 45 minutes pass by without too much happening. India have had a slight upper-hand, but only goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh's heroics have kept the score 0-0.
Added time brings a moment of magic. Standing right outside the box on the left flank, Rahul receives an aerial cross, chests the ball down and wraps his left foot around it, which slams into the upright. This brings the father on his feet, and elicits a gasp from the mother. The neighbouring house shudders with half-uttered cheers.
No one says it out loud, but they're all thinking it. 'If only he had scored'
At half-time, Pradeep bickers with Rahul's friends who say it was unlucky. Having seen Rahul since the day he was a puny little boy, Pradeep knows better.
"India could have won the match! I'm disappointed that Rahul missed that chance. When he calls me now, I'll be honest with him and tell him that you missed a great opportunity and as a forward you are not supposed to commit those mistakes," Pradeep tells Firstpost.
Colombia strike minutes within the restart. The mood at the house seems to sag. 'If only...' threatens to become the reigning mood for the rest of the night.
The second half presents Rahul with another chance. He heads it wide. As his wife takes recourse in prayers, Praveen quickly changes his shirt. Prayer and superstition to change the mind of fate.
The night's defining moments come within seconds of each other. Jeakson Singh's goal in the 82nd minute brings everyone to their feet, but within moments the bubble bursts as Colombia score again. 'If only...' returns in full force.
India's second defeat of the tournament in as many games more or less confirms their exit. But the performances against USA and Colombia have meant they can go out with their heads held high.
Bindu is distraught beyond words, but Praveen understands the scale of what his son has achieved just by making it to where he has. "It was a good game but it feels really bad to see missed chances from Abhijit Sarkar and Rahul himself. We should have won this game. But we are proud of the whole team and happy with their performance. But Team India will definitely see great heights from here on. This is just the beginning."
Updated Date: Oct 10, 2017 18:12 PM