How far could home be for a Brazilian footballer in Malappuram?
Gabriel De Lima Da Silva hasn't got a clue just yet. For all he knows, it took him over 20 hours to get here from Sao Paulo.
Last year he went to Donetsk in Ukraine and that had felt like half a world away. But reaching Kerala certainly took a few extra flight hours and he is now farthest from home than he has ever been.
Gabriel wasn't aware that the streets here are painted in the colours of the Selecao and its bete noire, Argentina, at least once every four years, or that Paulo Coelho and Roberto Carlos evoke great admiration in the Malayali psyche.
He was, however, informed that football is the most popular sport in north Kerala and that is reassuring enough for the 20-year-old.
"In Brazil, everyone loves football. If people here love football, then I think I'm home," says the 6'4'' defender who has arrived on an eight-month contract with Malappuram-based Kerala United Football Club.
Recently he completed the mandatory COVID-19-related quarantine period. And the other day, he had a feel of football in the country during a 10-minute cameo in a friendly game. On Tuesday, he trained with his new teammates and had a chat with his coach. "I'm on my adaptation time. Soon, I'll give my best for the team," he says.
Gabriel is not the first Brazilian to sign for a club in the state. Over the years, Kerala Blasters have fielded at least half a dozen and Gokulam Kerala have given tryouts to two. It is though the first time that a young Brazilian footballer has joined a second division side in Kerala.
On the face of it, that does not seem like a wise career move. But Gabriel, whose stint with the youth teams of Ukrainian heavyweights Shakhtar Donetsk was cut short last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, knows he is doing the right thing.
"I was with Atibaia (a football club in Sao Paulo) and there were offers from other clubs in Brazil. But my agent made business with Kerala (United) and when I saw the offer I saw an opportunity. It is a good project," says the soft-spoken youngster.
To know more about football in India, he phoned compatriot Rafael Crivellaro who plays for Chennaiyin FC in the ISL. The brief conversation helped him stick to his decision.
Gabriel was the first foreign signing of Kerala United. Their ambition to rival Kerala Blasters and Gokulam Kerala, the two prominent clubs in the state, has already caught the attention of football fans here.
Since Saudi-based United World Group took over Quartz FC and launched the rebranded Kerala United, there have been some exciting moves in the domestic transfer market. Besides recruiting Gabriel, Kerala United also roped in leading coach Bino George to head their first team.
They are aiming to qualify for the I-League, the second-tier competition in India behind the Indian Super League (ISL), and in October, they will play the qualifiers.
Gabriel realises that he is being prepped for the upcoming season that the club treats as a period of transition.
Kerala United should be happy to know that their Brazilian recruit idolises defensive stalwart Sergio Ramos, who is revered for his leadership qualities on a football pitch. "He's the best," tells Gabriel. "He's very brave, has a fighting spirit and great ability."
Gabriel believes like the former Spain and Real Madrid captain, he too has "power, speed, physical and aerial ability". "I am also comfortable on the ball and I can play long passes," he says.
Once he starts playing in competitive fixtures, the eyes of football fans, coaches and scouts in India will be trained on him. They'll look for potential in him to play at the highest level and Gabriel is game for that challenge. He has read about the Brazilians who took part in the ISL -- specially mentions Zico, who is a legend of Gabriel's favourite football club Flamengo -- and aspires to emulate them one day.
Of course, he also cherishes bigger dreams, of playing in Europe, of earning that famous yellow jersey, but there is still a long way to go. "First, I want to do good work in Kerala (United). I want to help my team win. Then we'll see," says Gabriel.