On October 9, Sanjeev Stalin wrote his name into Indian football history as the creator of the country's first World Cup goal.
Jeakson Singh headed in from Sanjeev's corner kick that rose high and curled into the box. Though Colombia cancelled out that equalizer in less than a minute and India went on to lose, it will always remain India's first World Cup goal -- and Sanjeev was involved.
Sanjeev's parents were there to see the moment, described as "historic" all over the country, that sent a packed Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi into delirium. "India were playing so well," says Stalin, his father, who travelled 1,000 miles from home to see the game. "I couldn't believe there were 50,000 people cheering them on. And my son? What a great cross...how can we not be happy?"
Back home in Bengaluru, football jerseys of various colours -- red, blue, red and white, blue and red, Manchester United, Barcelona -- hang from three ropes and occupy a couple of cots at garment shop of Parameshwari Stalin, Sanjeev's mother. With raincoats and a few cotton shirts for company, these replicas form her world, a world with football at its centre.
She beams at the first sight of us and is happy to talk about her son. Neither Parameshwari nor Stalin can believe they will be known because of their son. While their footballing journey is more than two decades old, their son's has just begun.
Sanjeev's first taste of fame came after his free-kick rattled the net against the UAE in the AFC U-16 Championship, opening India's scoring in a tournament they hosted a year ahead of the U17 World Cup. Sanjeev had rolled the ball forward, Suresh Wangjam stopped it, and then Sanjeev stepped up and curled it in from about 20 yards out. He has been in the team ever since, and set-pieces remain his big strength.
Sanjeev was even one of the four players nominated by India U17 coach Luis Norton de Matos to be voted captain by a secret ballot among the squad members. Midfielder Amarjit Kiyam won that vote.
"Sanjeev is very calm, cool and respectful," says Sandeep Singh, his coach at the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA). "Whether it is giving respect to coaches or giving respect to players. He is always focused only on his training and food. He was also good in his studies."
Recommended by Jamshid Nassiri, an Iranian striker who lorded over Indian domestic football through the 1980s, Sanjeev had left home at the age of 10 to join the CFA.
At the academy, the trainees wake up at 5.30am and train till about 7.15. At 8 they head off to school, remaining there till about 2 in the afternoon. Two hours of rest and it is back to the football. Sanjeev lived this life -- coming home once every year, for a month -- for the bulk of the seven years he spent at the CFA, before graduating.
His parents don't complain about all that time he spent away from them at a young age. Stalin, an amateur footballer himself at the Aeronautical Development Establishment, and Parameshwari were always in favour of a footballing career for their son. "My dad gave me the freedom to play football. Today I am doing the same with my son," says Stalin. Parameshwari, born in Myanmar (Burma), came to Bengaluru when she was young and took up the garment business with the help of her brother Shanmugam, who also played football at an amateur level.
Sanjeev Stalin's father says, the team will hopefully play better today. Last time they made a few mistakes. Wishes the boys all the best. pic.twitter.com/45oX9DQymK
- Abhimanyu Sen (@abhimanyusen) 9 October 2017
Tested as both midfielder and in defence, Sanjeev found his feet on the left channel. A two-footed footballer with a strong right foot, he soon made the left-back position his own. But what stood out about Sanjeev -- apart from his skills -- was his mentality.
"He always said, 'One day I want to wear the India jersey,'" says Sandeep. "I told him that to wear the jersey you need to put that extra effort. He always practised his free kicks, set-pieces and put that extra effort." The only area where Sanjeev has to work on, Sandeep feels, is his physique. Being a defender, Sanjeev's twig-like physique can be exploited by taller and stronger opponents -- such as those from the USA and Colombia, who he has already faced in New Delhi during the World Cup. His head, however, is in the right place, says Sandeep.
"Sir, ye talented baccha hai. Isme woh hai jo karke dikhayega. Usjko Indian team ka jersey dalna hain, ye peeche hatne walon mein se nahin hain (This boy is talented. He has the determination to get what he wants. He wants to wear that India team jersey and he's not among those who will take a backward step)," he says.
The Stalins are staying in New Delhi till the group stages get over. They don't travel a lot like Sanjeev -- who has been to Europe and South America, playing practice games and tournaments -- but there is one country Parameshwari wants to travel to.
"I told him I want to see the place I was born in," she says. "I want to see Burma. Sanju told me that someday he will take me there."