I-League: Gokulam Kerala targets top-four finish

Gokulam’s arrival in the I-League means Kerala will have a presence in the national league after six years. But with the ISL now bigger with two new teams, getting quality domestic players has been an issue.

Gokulam Kerala FC coach Bino George   -  Special Arrangement

When his team Gokulam Kerala FC took on the Indian Super League newcomer Bengaluru FC a few days ago, Bino George noticed a rare quality in his players that thrilled him.

“They appeared inspired, they went all out. They were aware that matches against ISL teams offered them a rare opportunity to impress the big-league sides and they, especially the new foreigners, put their best foot forward,” said Bino George, the coach of Gokulam FC which will be making its I-League debut in Kozhikode later this month, in a chat with Sportstar here on Saturday.

“So, the foreigners are even prepared to come for a lower fee, their eyes are on the ISL.”

That has proved to be a blessing for many I-League teams.

Gokulam, which is based in Malappuram and backed by prominent businessman Gokulam Gopalan, was in Kochi to play the ISL runner-up Kerala Blasters in a friendly here.

Friendly:

Gokulam Kerala FC stunningly forced ISL runner-up Kerala Blasters to a goalless draw at the Panampilly Nagar Sports Academy ground here on Saturday night. With the floodlights going off towards the end of the match, only 80 minutes of play was possible.

Aizawl’s Kamo joins Gokulam

The new club has roped in Ivory Coast striker Kamo Stephane Bayi, last year’s I-League champion Aizawl FC’s top goal scorer, along with central defenders Ghananian Daniel Addo and Nigerian Emmanuel. Two more, a prominent Afghan player and a Syrian to fill up the Asian slots, are expected over the next few days.

Gokulam’s arrival in the I-League means that Kerala will have a presence in the national league after six years. But with the ISL now bigger with two new teams, getting quality domestic players has been an issue for Kerala’s lone AFC Pro License holder.

“It was very difficult to get players this time. The best went to the ISL and the remaining good ones went to the two big clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan,” said the 41-year-old.

“But we have three players from the Bengal team which won the Santosh Trophy this year in (Pravat) Lakra, Santu Singh and Monotosh Chakladar.”

Bino had set his eyes on SBI-Kerala’s very talented midfielder Jijo Joseph but that did not materialise.

“Jijo is very good, he could easily play for the best ISL teams. I was looking at players who would fit into my style of play, like Jijo, SBT goalkeeper Mithun, AG’s Asif and Jipson. I asked for players from SBI (formerly SBT) and Kerala Police on loan but they were reluctant to part with them, they had departmental issues,” revealed the coach.

“But the Police released Jimshad since he did not join on a sports quota. We have nine Kerala players in our side now.”

With the ISL less than a week away, the teams in the glamorous league are keen for friendly matches. And that has proved to be a golden opportunity for Gokulam, which has former Kerala Blasters player Sushanth Mathew as its captain.

Apart from the recent game against Bengaluru FC, which Gokulam lost 2-0, and Saturday’s match against Blasters, the team will also play FC Pune City on November 15.

“After two first-half goals, we did not concede a goal against Bengaluru FC in the second half. That has boosted our confidence, especially since our budget is just ₹2 crore against Bengaluru’s ₹27 crore,” said Binu. “Now our goal is to finish among I-League’s top four and qualify for the Super Cup which will include the ISL’s top four.”

Binu is happy with the progress players such as Blasters’ C.K. Vineeth and Rino Anto have made during the last few years. He was the Viva Kerala’s assistant coach during their time in Kochi.

“Vineeth is all hard work, that is what has carried him so far,” he said. “Vineeth and Rino will also the inspiration for my boys.”

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