Rahul KP shines bright in Asian Games, keeping Kerala's football legacy alive
Rahul KP says he is proud of his teammates despite the defeat to China because only they know what they've been through before the match. Former Asiad goalscorer NP Pradeep, however, points to the downturn in the number of Kerala players in the India team.
Kerala, often hailed as the heartland of Indian football, has long been synonymous with passion for the beautiful game. In recent years, Kerala's football prowess has experienced a downturn, but India's opening match at the 2023 Asian Games injected a fresh hope into the state's footballing legacy.
Rahul KP, with an extraordinary goal, etched his name alongside Kerala's finest in the list of Asian Games goalscorers.
In the 46th minute of a nail-biting match against China, India found themselves trailing 0-1. It was at this crucial moment that Rahul KP attempted a shot of sheer audacity from an impossibly tight angle, a shot that sent shockwaves through the stadium as it nestled into the net—a truly stunning equalizer for India. For a fleeting moment, it rekindled the dreams of the Blue Tigers.
China scored another goal in the second half before running riot against a depleted Indian side to win 5-1. But Rahul KP, having scored a stunning goal against one of the most formidable opponents at this stage, would feel reason to feel optimistic about the rest of the campaign.
Rahul himself shed light on his audacious strike, "I didn't have anyone in the box. The only option I had was to hit it as hard as possible because I also had a man behind. So I hit it and thank God it went in."
In a game marked by high drama, just moments before Rahul's heroics, Indian goalkeeper Gurmeet pulled off a remarkable save from a penalty, injecting newfound vigor into the team.
Rahul emphasized the impact of the crucial save, "It was nice, we were coming back and that lifted the team. We were feeling like 'yes, we can do it right now'."
Toll of travel, sleep deprivation showed in second half
India's entry into the match was far from ideal, without the luxury of a preparation camp and with players having had only a few hours of sleep. Yet, the first half showcased an intensity and determination that left a mark.
Rahul gave a peek into the halftime talk, "We were relaxing because we had an intense first half. They were keeping the ball well, so we had to run a lot. The coach came in and said 'I'm proud of you. In the next 45 minutes, you've got to give it your all,' and that was all we had to do. We tried our best."
However, as the second half unfolded, the toll of travel and sleep deprivation began to show, leading to India conceding four more goals. Despite the defeat, Rahul remained resolute about his physical and mental state, "I'm feeling great. I got something positive to take away from here - the goal, so I am looking forward to the next game."
Reflecting on the loss in the first match, particularly considering the team's arrival in Hangzhou less than 24 hours before the game, Rahul's resilience shone through.
"I am proud of my teammates because we know what we've been through. We have to forget this game, pick up the positives from it, and move on to the next one," he said.
Downturn of Kerala players in India team suicidal in larger picture: NP Pradeep
Kerala's football legacy runs deep, with luminaries like IM Vijayan, hailed as one of India's greatest-ever players, leaving an indelible mark in the Asian Games by scoring against Turkmenistan in 1998.
Another celebrated Kerala player, N P Pradeep, affectionately known as "the powerhouse" among Keralites, contributed to the legacy by smashing a memorable goal against Hong Kong in the 2006 Asian Games.
N P Pradeep, though, is concerned about the decreasing number of Kerala players in the national team, "Rahul scoring in the Asian Games is a great thing for Kerala Football. Asian Games is a huge step. I'm glad that he was able to feel the ecstasy IM Vijayan and myself experienced once."
There's a concerning trend of fewer Kerala players making it to the national squad. Pradeep emphasizes, "The number of Kerala born players in the national game is going down; back in the days, they used to call up from department teams and all. But now that is limited to the Indian Super League. That is suicidal in a larger picture also."