Time: 5:30 AM IST.
Location: Parade Ground, Fort Kochi.
Scene: An 89-year-old takes the field with a football in his hand and starts engaging in an intense conversation with a bunch of kids aged between five and fifteen.
For people in Fort Kochi, this is a common sight. The curiosity of the rest of the world can be forgiven. The veteran in the scene is Kerala's 'Football Uncle' Rufus D'Souza, who has been teaching football to kids for the last 49 years and is still up for it every morning, defying his age in style.
Uncle Rufus gets up early every morning, gets to Kochi's historic Parade Ground and conducts training from 5:30 am to 7:00 am and in the evening, on all days except Sundays, free of cost since 1940. He has played hockey and football during his career and has trained several notable footballers from Kerala, namely former India international goalkeeper Feroz Sheriff and incumbent Kerala Football Association (KFA) secretary Anil Kumar, KA Anson, Jacob Varghese - the list is long.
Rufus' mother wanted him to play basketball whereas hockey was his father's preferred choice of sport. His grandmother sorted out things to let the youngster decide for himself. He then started playing football at the very ground he conducts training every day now. It was the beginning of an eternal love affair.
Rufus went to Madras, played for one of the country's biggest matchstick company, the Western India Match Company (WIMCO) and many other clubs before landing a job at the State Bank. His entire life has revolved around the sport but how? Rufus leads a disciplined life and he wants the younger generations also to do the same. "My guru was KM Aboo. He taught me discipline. I have my issues, I am growing old, but even if it's raining, I don't use an umbrella. I don't sit down while I am on the ground. I have to go to the ground every day. It's the blessing of my teachers," Rufus spoke to Goal.
He added, "I haven't married and I don't have kids. I am trying to help everyone else' kids develop (their football skills). I don't allow kids to grow hair, I cannot stand foul language. If those rules are broken, I ask them to leave. When kids come late to training, I don't let them in. This is nothing personal, the next day, they will come on time."
And Feroze Sheriff, one of his many students, is in agreement. "What I learned from Rufus Uncle is to respect time. Punctuality was important for him. Nothing stopped him from turning up at the ground five minutes before the scheduled time. He never abused anyone. It was encouraging for us, the way he took care of his players. When we grew up, we realized the importance of his words," he told Goal.
Rufus' disciplined coaching career received the recognition it deserved in August earlier this year - he was flown to Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of the Fit India movement. The context was apt for a man whose fitness levels will put several young footballers to shame.
"It was a surprise," the old man recollected the event. "It was related to the Fit India movement. I was sent the tickets and they gave me five-star accommodation. I went to Delhi on August 29. Not only was I able to meet the Prime Minister, but I was also able to meet several old players. It was the biggest gift of my life."
For someone so in love with the game, it might be a surprise for a few that he abstains from watching football these days. But he has his reasons.
"I don't watch football now. We have only 90 minutes in football and players these days are passing the ball backwards. Back in the day, it was fun to watch the game. They seem lazy to chase and win the ball higher up the field.
"There is no discipline in today's football. Indian football has done well when there were Indian coaches. We can't even score (do well) against Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the World Cup qualifiers. Foreign players who no one cares about are being played in our Indian leagues. There are a lot of people without football knowledge," he opined.
Having followed Indian football closely right from a young age (that's an amazing 70+ years of knowledge and understanding), Rufus' favourite Indian footballer is neither Baichung Bhutia nor IM Vijayan. His award goes to 1951 Delhi Asian Games gold medalist late Sahu Mewalal.
"Mewalal has scored more than 1000 goals including 62 hat-tricks - he has not received any recognition. He was spoken about in the same class of Maradona and Pele," Rufus brought out his memories of the player.
The 89-year-old football uncle is happy with what he has achieved in his life. But that is not going to keep him at home. Tomorrow. he will be at the Parade Ground at 5:25 AM. And if the kids are late, he will send them back.