Gokulam Kerala FC — A club of many firsts

Kerala’s Gokulam FC is on a mission to make history. The club from Kozhikode has now won the women’s first division league (Indian Women’s League), the 2019 Durand Cup, two I-League titles, and the second division league title. The men’s team’s successive league wins are a first in the 15-year I-League history.

Glory days: It’s back-to-back I-League titles for Gokulam Kerala.   -  Special Arrangement

Just a few days after its record-breaking I-League win on the back of a gruelling schedule, Gokulam Kerala embarked on its maiden AFC Cup campaign. “When we get into any tournament, we want to win it. And AFC Cup is not an opportunity that comes every year. We want to progress into the next round,” says the club president V. C. Praveen. While it’s not going to be an easy task in a group involving heavyweights ATK Mohun Bagan, Bashundhara Kings (Bangladesh) and Maziya S&RC (Maldives), it’s hard to put anything past theMalabariansfrom achieving.

Celebrations were cut short as Gokulam comprehensively downed ATK Mohun Bagan in the opening game in its own backyard. A remarkable feat in what is quickly becoming a norm for the club from Kozhikode. This was just among a string of sweet firsts for Gokulam in the last three years, for not just the men’s team but also its all-dominating women’s team. Gokulam has now won the women’s first division league (Indian Women’s League 2020), the 2019 Durand Cup, two I-League titles, and the second division league title. The men’s team’s successive league wins are a first in the 15-year I-League history. The team also broke the record for the most unbeaten matches (21) in the competition.

READ: Kerala football in the limelight after Santosh Trophy victory and Gokulam's I-League win

“It is a moment of great achievement that Gokulam Kerala could win the I-League titles consecutively in Bengal. It is considered an extremely difficult task to take away a title by beating a team from Bengal in Bengal,” says the legendary I. M. Vijayan after theMalabarianscreated history. The former India captain, who earned the sobriquet ‘Blackbuck’ for his sublime skills that mesmerised the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans during his playing days, has high hopes from the young teamthat has been making path-breaking strides in Indian football.

“I am proud that the boys have done it for the second time in succession,” Vijayan says with a hint of pride.

For its young Italian head coach, Vincenzo Alberto Annese, the second title was the fruition of the effective grooming of talents culled from the club’s hinterland in Kozhikode and the right selection of foreigners that the limited budget allowed. The Italian gaffer had successfully brought about the synergy, creating an inexorable unit that was technically sound and tactically impressive. Even the rigours and restrictions of a prolonged bio-bubble could not deter its efficiency.

Pioneers: Gokulam Kerala won the last edition of the Women's I-League held in 2020.   -  K. RAGESH

 

“I am an emotional man, and we love to stay together as a team. The bio-bubble helped us make a better emotional connection,” Annese says about Gokulam’s triumph. “We proved to be a very solid group with a crazy personality. We stayed like a family and that fantastic dressing room atmosphere helped us achieve great success.”

Annese says Gokulam Kerala’s success proves that Indian football has the right potential to reach a high level of excellence. “I wanted to show Indian football some different stuff. We developed a different playing style, a kind of attacking football that the country has not seen in many years,” he says about the team that scored 44 goals and conceded just 15 in the 18 matches in the country’s oldest national-level league. “I do not want to sound arrogant, but we really have developed a distinctive mentality to attack and keep a dominance in the attacking third.”

The women’s team, too, won its second successive IWL. They also have a men’s reserve team which is grooming future first-teamers, with seven players promoted to the first team this year. Gokulam has 13 Kerala-born players in the men’s first team – exactly half the number of the squad, an increase of three from last season.

READ: Gokulam Kerala beats Sethu FC to retain Indian Women's League title

Gokulam, which is a little over five years into its existence, is setting the standard for a model football club in India at a time when most Indian Super League (ISL) clubs don’t even have a women’s team.

Big dreams: “We want to complete a hat-trick and become the first club to gain promotion to go to the ISL,” says club president V. C. Praveen.   -  Special Arrangement

 

“We came in as a corporate team. We have a company, and we have businesses, where there are women staff and colleagues too. So, when there is no disparity in our set-up, then why shouldn’t we take that up in football also,” explains Praveen of the club’s make-up. “We are here for the passion of football, not because it’s men or women. If there is an opportunity, we will go for it. It makes it complete. For other clubs, forget ISL and a few I-League teams, for the rest, the pockets are not that deep for a women’s club. At the end of the day, even the smallest or biggest clubs don’t take anything in return for investing the money. So, they think why another few lakhs spent on football?”

Praveen hopes for a rise in popularity in the women’s game, which could prompt more ISL and I-League clubs to invest in the women’s game. While Gokulam is steamrolling its competition in the IWL (ten wins in ten, 63 goals and three conceded), Praveen points to the dearth of top teams in the league when compared to the closely-contested I-League.

“In a 10 or an 11-team league, there are only two or three teams who really have good players. In other teams, you will have two or three good players in the XI. So, it will take at least four or five years for the teams to have more talents and the league to be more competitive. I was telling the league if the men can have five or six foreigners and play four in the XI, why not the same in the women’s league too…” he asks.

Team spirit: “I am an emotional man, and we love to stay together as a team. The bio-bubble helped us make a better emotional connection,” says coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese about the team's secret behind the second I-League title.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Only Gokulam has filled out its quota of two foreign players, while Sethu and Sirvodem have one each, and the other nine teams failed to sign an overseas player.

“At the end of the day, it’s an I-league for women. You sign two foreigners and play one. Whoever has big pockets, sign the cream of the Indian players. So probably if we, Sethu FC and Kickstart FC sign six or seven players, the entire Indian national team is taken by these three. Then, there is KRYPSA from Manipur. There are only four of five teams that take the good players, the rest of the teams are filled by local players. That’s why there is a disparity and the big goal margins between the teams,” Praveen adds.

The IWL made its return in April after a break of two years with the AIFF failing to schedule the league last year. The 12-team league is held over 42 days in Bhubaneswar, while the I-League is held over four months and the ISL over five months.

Praveen calls for the AIFF to do its part in helping the women’s game grow. “They should take the league very seriously. It shouldn’t be for namesake. Sometimes we feel the Federation is doing it for the sake of it. They always have the league at the end of the year. We won the IWL in 2020 and last year we didn’t have the league. We wanted to take AFC Women’s Club championship seriously, but the Indian women’s team went on friendlies touring some countries. So, we didn’t even have the players training with us for a week or 10 days. It was hardly four days. The same thing happened to the IWL this year too. The Indian players just came and joined the bubble three days before the start of the IWL,” he says.

READ: When a city elevated a championship

While explaining Gokulam’s domination, Praveen speaks of the “pride and passion” of everyone involved within the club. With the AIFF mandate, charting a promotion to the ISL for next season’s I-league winner, you wouldn’t put it past theMalabariansto do the three-peat and add another first to its honour’s list.

“We want to complete a hat-trick and become the first club to gain promotion to go to the ISL,” says Praveen.

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