Sahal Abdul Samad, the desert wanderer who dances on grass
Sahal Abdul Samad knows Oman quite well. He has lived practically all his life near its eastern border in Al-Ain, the oasis city in the United Arab Emirates.
Oman's football team had not piqued Sahal's interest until the draw for the FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers. India drew the gulf champions, Asian champions Qatar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Now, Sahal could face Oman for the first time in Guwahati on September 5, as India push towards their biggest dream yet. With just one full season of professional football under his belt, Sahal can not believe he is part of that dream.
"After the draw there were lots of messages on our WhatsApp group," Sahal remembers. "Sandesh bhai [Sandesh Jhingan] said, 'We have a good group, we can create history.' Chhetri bhai [Sunil Chhetri] and Gurpreet bhai [Gurpreet Singh Sandhu] also put a message. I think everybody will be well prepared for this."
The 22-year-old's rise has been surreal, from the days of playing in parking lots in Al-Ain, to being the Indian Super League (ISL) Emerging Player of the Season and AIFF's Emerging Footballer of the Year for 2018-19. Sahal has been a key part of India's fresh system under new coach Igor Stimac, whom he credits for creating a "friendly atmosphere" in the squad.
"He says everything openly. He says, 'Don't blame yourself -- whatever happens, I'll take it. You just give your 100%.'"
Stephen Constantine's tactically inflexible 4-4-2 approach is a thing of the past. The ineffectiveness of the approach showed up dramatically at the Asian Cup against stronger, more fluid systems. With a 4-3-3 in place, Sahal is thriving in a midfield alongside Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Anirudh Thapa, with Brandon Fernandes and Pronay Halder the other candidates in those positions. It is the classic midfield triumvirate, with the passer in Brandon, the dribbler in Sahal, and the destructive force in Pronay, a system not too dissimilar to the Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets trinity that worked wonders for Spain and Barcelona.
It's only been five games under Stimac, and Sahal has featured in all of them. The coach believes his promise is ready to deliver on the biggest stage.
Despite all the awards, though, Sahal has scored only one goal. For someone who likes to classify himself as an attacking midfielder, that is not exactly the best record. But it is his impact that has everybody talking. Chhetri said recently, "If I had to pick one player from all the youngsters who have come through, it would be Sahal. He can change games."
Sahal's dribbling, feints and unexpected turns that send defenders the wrong way, can do just that for India. The parking lots, the seven-a-sides, the street football after his 7 am- 1.30 pm school hours have moulded him into the player he is today.
Ever since he left the UAE to come to Kerala on the advice of his elder brother, his career has moved rapidly. The asphalt has given way to natural grass as his canvas. The ball has followed his feet and he has never let go.
The story behind the rise
"When I came to Kerala, I came to understand what football really is," Sahal says. "I came to Kerala only for football. I had no idea about the ISL and Indian football when I was there [in Al-Ain]. Then from college, it happened."
St. Joseph's College, Kannur is where it all began. In Sahal's first year, his performance against S.N. College caught the eye of the opposition coach. He was advised to come to S.N. College, which had a stronger football team, producing the likes of C.K Vineeth, easily the most popular (and scrutinised) player of the current generation in Kerala.
Sahal took up the offer.
"In S.N. College itself, they encourage you for the college's benefit. Because once they know you are good, they send you, they tell you if an offer comes from the outside," Sahal says.
"Only if you start playing here, people will see you. People see you at University games. Because I played for my University, I got a chance in the Santosh Trophy and then I got an offer from Kerala Blasters."
When representing Kerala at the Santosh Trophy, Sahal went from being a forward to a midfielder. Another opportunistic turn, though this happened more by chance.
"Playing as a striker was not working out. Our captain at that time, Usman, he was the striker, so I would have not got the chance anyway," he says. "You have to start three U-21 players in the Santosh Trophy. Because of that rule I was put in midfield, and after that I felt I could play better in midfield."
After a year of travel with the Kerala Blasters reserves, Sahal won promotion to the senior side at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. Dimitar Berbatov, goal scorer on the night, gave way to Sahal in the 80th minute, during the 2017-18 season.
"I had a lot of tension," he remembers. "I took on a player that day. I fouled him and I was lying on the ground. I thought only two minutes had passed since I had come on. Later when I saw the replay it was beyond 90 minutes. So, the game went so fast, I didn't even realise it."
Sahal is now integral to how Kerala Blasters operate in midfield. Possibly more so in the coming season, with new coach Eelco Schattorie known to love the passing game. "I love that style. It's the same style we like to play in the national team. Keep the ball, pass the ball, move around," Sahal says.
Like the pace of his career graph, he has seen the speed of the game increase too since his international debut against Curacao.
"In international football, it's totally different. If we get the ball, there is no time to think. We only get seconds. In Ahmedabad, Chhetri bhai gave me a ball on minus (a cut back), I stopped it, looked on both sides, the next moment the ball was taken away from me.
"After the game Chhetri bhai told me, 'This is the difference. When you play against a big team, you won't have that much time.' In the ISL, there was plenty of time."
The Sunil Chhetri effect
Indeed, Chhetri has been integral to Sahal's development. The most significant change came when Chhetri saw him snacking at the India camp, and decided it was time for him to know what it takes to be a professional. "He took a class for an hour," he says, after which balanced food, nutrition and practice became a routine for Sahal.
"Chhetri bhai said in a simple manner -- there are two things -- what we want and what we need. What we want, you have to avoid, like pizza. Not completely avoid it, but most times. What we need is protein and rest.
"He said it in such simple language. Sleep, food, practice. These are the three things. He was absolutely right. I understand that right now. These things, this knowledge...we never really knew about it.
"To be honest, I am actually playing quite freely now. These are big factors"
There's no butter in his chicken anymore. Lights go off by 11 pm, so no more late-night Barcelona games. Kerala parotta, his favourite dish, stands cancelled. His Instagram has become abusive if things go wrong, something he says has troubled him.
"After a game, I get a lot of messages. Direct messages. Anas [Anas Edathodika] told me later football is like this. If you see all that, you will only have time for that. Just avoid it."
Despite his breakthrough, Kerala Blasters won just two games last season. The social media abuse was too much to take at times, forcing the likes of Vineeth to start a #StopCyberBullying campaign.
"Yet, I read the comments. I just want to know what people are thinking about me. Especially for Kerala Blasters, the abuse is a lot. They don't abuse the player, but they target their families too. It's not good. It's like they make the players non-existent.
"Practice and practice and try to make it better in the next game. That's all you can do."
Sahal thinks about Chhetri's advice when negativity consumes his world: "Work hard, like you always do."
Sahal wanted to be a physiotherapist if he couldn't make it to football, but he has simpler goals now.
"I just want to play. I just want to play more and more," he says. "Score a lot of goals. I want to reach where Chhetri bhai is now.