Tracing the rejuvenation of Kerala as a footballing hotbed
Written by: Ali Shibil Roshan
The southern state was once a cornerstone in Indian football before experiencing a period of decline but now it is rising again.
When we Indians talk about sports, the first thing that comes to our mind would be cricket. But, in a state, situated at the Southern end of the vast and diverse Indian peninsula, people fuel up the intervals talking and debating about football. A state with many paradoxical features, Kerala is an Indian state where football goes nip and tuck with cricket.
Starting from toddlers, the locals find time to engage in this beautiful sport irrespective of the time and situation. The Keralites never shy away from filling the stands, be it an International match or just a Sevens Football Tournament.
A state which once proudly stood upon the upper echelons of the Indian football by contributing plethora of stars had gone into a deep slumber in the recent past. Despite dominating the Indian football once, the southern state had gone backwards in terms of productions of stars.
The negative slope they had earned, concerning the contribution of players to Indian Football was affrighting. They endured from multiple wrecks, and it looked like a cataclysm was eagerly awaiting them. From defeats in the Santosh Trophies or the absence of Kerala-born players in the national squad- all pointed out to one ineluctable disaster.
But, how? The passionate fans, who filled their hearts with love to football, weren't ready to give up the ghost. Years later, here they are in 2018 looking at those who wrote them off, with grit.
The evolution has already started its inevitable process. Today, Kerala boasts two top-tier clubs; Gokulam Kerala and Kerala Blasters. While the former feature in the I-League, latter represent Kerala in the cash-rich Indian Super League. While Blasters are famous for their fan-base Manjappada-Kerala Blasters Fans who turn every ground into their home, Gokulam Kerala are renowned as 'Giant Killers FC'.
The Manjappada initiated the move to save the FIFA approved pitch of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi
In a cricket-dominated country, it's not possible to battle and win against it. But in Kerala, it is certainly possible. #SaveKochiTurf turned out to be a prime example and a strong evidence of the footballing roots in Kerala. Initiated by Manjappada, the campaign to save the pitch of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi took social media by storm and spread it to all the corners of the country. The massive public protests against conducting Cricket match in FIFA-approved Kochi turf whilst Trivandrum stadium was available produced positive results. From the Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar to the common men, all raised a similar voice, a chorus of "#SaveKochiTurf".
While questions about the decision to conduct football in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium are under scrutiny, we're never here to evolve our discussions around it. But, what the fans in Kerala did was commendable. The judgement to change the venue was an ethical victory for them. It helped the country realize football is never under the shades of the mighty cricket.
Gokulam Kerala did an applaudable work this year. Under the guidance of Bino George, a shrewd coach with an eye to developing players, Gokulam helped many Kerala-stars showcase themselves at the national stage. Arjun, Salman, Rashid, Irshad are all their contributions, but it's just a start. With Bino George going to concentrate on grass-roots, Gokulam has already ensured the fans one thing, more Arjuns through their ranks.
While lauding their efforts, we should also be cognizant of Kerala Blasters, who laid the foundation for this mammoth revival. Kerala Blasters hasn't given the nation many talented youngsters born in Kerala, but have helped the state stir the situation in which it was. They brought the fans into the stadium and made the nation understand what they're capable of.
Turning our attention into Kerala Santosh Trophy, the coach Satheevan Balan flew to West Bengal with a comparatively younger squad. Activating their coach's plan on the fields, the young crew ran riots in West Bengal. The team had learned from what went wrong against Goa in the previous year Santosh Trophy semi-final, where Liston Colaco single-handedly destroyed the Kerala defense. Come into this season, they conceded just three goals throughout the tournament. Akin to that of Bino George, Satheevan Balan also deserves plaudits for the work he has done.
The gameplay Kerala implemented throughout the Santosh campaign was attractive and impressive. The energetic players helped Kerala keep the temperament intact throughout the game. Keeping the pressure off, Kerala squad managed to edge past Bengal in the penalty-shootouts, courtesy of magnificent saves from their warden Midhun.
Furthermore, Kerala's performance on the frontlines was impressive, the massive number scored goals stay as a testament to it. They did what the fans expected and it's undoubtedly a symptom of the revival of the state football in Kerala.
Many of Kerala players featured in for them in the previous Santosh Trohpy are with ISL and I-League Clubs now. Akin to that, these players whom Satheevan Balan has helped bringing in the limelight could join ISL or I-League clubs soon, reports suggest.
All these being said, the process is not even partially completed. With time and guidance, betterment remains a bright possibility. Despite Kerala Blasters and Gokulam Kerala, there are many more teams in this business which represent Kerala at various levels of football and also deserve acclamations.
In terse, the developments we've seen so far are equally pleasing, but still lacks a high angle positive slope. With the necessary support from the respective authorities, both moral and financial, Kerala can still go a lot forward. It's certain that Kerala's football future is bright, but it's uncertain how long it will take. With more editions of the ISL, I-League and Santosh Trophy to come, the road to the summit is surely going to be eventful and interesting, to say the least.
Published: Fri Apr 06, 2018 05:35 PM IST