A few starlets from the league have already found new homes in I-League and ISL clubs.

The latest 2020-21 edition of the Kerala Premier League (KPL) was held in March and April earlier this year. The competition was held across two venues in Kerala – the Maharajas College Ground in Kochi and the Municipal Corporation Stadium in Thrissur. Gokulam Kerala’s Reserves Team made amends for their loss in the 2019-20 final to take home the title. With that, they also became only the second team after SBI Kerala to win two KPL titles.

KPL 2020-21 had 12 teams battling it out across two different groups and later a knockout phase. The top two teams from each group of six advanced to the knockout round and the two winners played in the final. Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) were the runners-up. Newly-formed Kerala United and Basco were the other two teams that played in the knockout phase.

Apart from the performances of different teams, another aspect that stood out in the KPL this season was the rise of many talented players. Some of them have already found new homes in I-League and ISL clubs. This, in turn, indicates that the state league could be the next hotbed of starlets that may dominate Indian football in years to come.

One of the few state leagues in India

We’re all aware of the Indian Super League, I-League and the Second Division League. But, what about the state leagues below them? Right now, there are very few state-level leagues that are happening on a consistent basis. The Goa Professional League and Mizoram Premier League are two of them – and recently, the KPL has become a part of that list too.

As these lower-level leagues are not happening throughout India, the Kerala Premier League has the potential to hand I-League and ISL clubs an opportunity to scout for talent. By organizing KPL 2020-21 seamlessly, despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the people in-charge have proved that it is safe for scouts to travel to the state and watch games. This, in turn, should ideally encourage more of them to attend league matches and that will translate to more visibility for the players.

Focus on youth development

Most of the teams that feature in the Kerala Premier League have several youngsters playing for them. This helps in the overall development of their game, both directly and indirectly.

Several eminent people have talked about the same before. In an exclusive interview with Khel Now, Kerala Blasters Reserves head coach TG Purushothaman openly said that he focuses more on improving his players. “We do not play for just results. We are the reserves’ side of an ISL club. Our primary focus is on developing a set of players that can later get promoted to the first-team and play for them at the topmost levels of Indian football,” he said.

Luca Soccer Club founder Navas Luca shared a similar opinion when Khel Now caught up with him in June. Despite the fact that the Malappuram-based outfit are not yet playing in a national league, Navas spoke on how his club pay attention to youth development and utilize competitions like the KPL as one of their tools.

“Developing young players is very important. Hence, we’re starting our scouting and training programmes for various junior age-groups soon,” he said. “Last season, KPL helped us a lot. It gave our first-team players much-needed match experience, which has helped them improve their performances further.”

As mentioned already, many young players have shifted base to I-League and ISL clubs following their performances in KPL 2020-21. Abdul Rabeeh of Luca joined Hyderabad FC, while KSEB’s left-footed centre-back Muhammed Uvais signed for Gokulam Kerala. His former teammate Nijo Gilbert will play for Blasters Reserves next season. Former India U-19 starlet Muhammed Rafi has also joined GKFC after an impressing with Mar Athanasius Football Academy. Joining these top teams not only promises them a good career, but also more development in better circumstances.

Unearthing hidden talents

Apart from professional clubs like KBFC and GKFC Reserves, Kerala United, Luca SC and so on, Kerala Premier League 2020-21 also witnessed some good performances from department teams like KSEB and Kerala Police. Academy teams like SAT Tirur and Mar Athanasius also created a positive impact in the league.

In these ‘lesser’ teams, you can find many good players who do not feature regularly in the club football circuit. They remind us that the sport is not exclusive to professional clubs in the state, while also giving them a platform to exhibit their talents. Some of them may even get opportunities to play for club sides eventually. This, in turn, helps them form sustainable careers out of what they love doing the most.

Quality and diversity of game

As always, the 2020-21 edition of KPL was also very competitive – with teams trying out different tactics to outwit their opponents. This has, in turn, improved the quality of the game played over the years, which indirectly helps players adapt to higher leagues more easily.

We already know how professional clubs, department teams and even academies feature in the league – thereby proving its diversity. A team like Mar Athanasius getting to lock horns with more experienced stars from other teams, gives them a great opportunity to develop themselves.

The league’s future plans

While nothing apart from a basic roadmap has been finalized, the football league system in Kerala is surely set to become bigger and better in the coming years. The new system will also pay more attention to local players across different age-groups.

This is an encouraging sign, as more Kerala-based footballers will get a platform to showcase their worth. It is also very likely that the teams taking part will be forced to be more professional in terms of their training, facilities, staff and so on, each of which will further help in the growth of football in the state.

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