Ancheri: Fans expect quality from Kerala footballers

Jo Paul Ancheri is among those Kerala footballers blessed with the physique and ability to pursue a professional career with foreign clubs. A left-footer gifted with a robust physique, like the Africans and Europeans we admire in the Indian Super League, he switched from defence into an attacking midfield position, fed the forwards and at times went on to finish off moves with stunning goals at club and international level.

Former Indian football captain Jo Paul Ancheri was named AIFF Player of the Year in 1994 and 2001.   -  H Vibhu

Jo Paul Ancheri is among those Kerala footballers blessed with the physique and ability to pursue a professional career with foreign clubs. A left-footer gifted with a robust physique, like the Africans and Europeans we admire in the Indian Super League, he switched from defence into an attacking midfield position, fed the forwards and at times went on to finish off moves with stunning goals at club and international level.

You had the build and talent to aim for a trial with any foreign club. Did you make an attempt?

Like any young footballer I wanted to play outside, but had no one to advise me. Language was a problem away from Kerala. Offers came from a Qatari club and from a club in Brunei when I was contracted to Mohun Bagan, so decided to adjust to Kolkata. The thought of moving to a strange country, not knowing how to communicate, was frightening.

You had the ability to play in almost every position, a useful quality nowadays in professional football. How did it happen? Any Indian players with such abilities in ISL 2014 and 2015 that caught your eye?

I thank Rustam Akramov (Uzbeki coach for Indian seniors) for making me play different positions. It was important for me to be able to grasp what a foreign coach had to teach. Akramov spotted ability in me and gave me confidence. From then on, I was never on the bench, always got playing time since coaches at every club I played found use for my skills.

About Indians in ISL, I think Sandesh Jhingan (Named Best Young Player in ISL 2014) was outstanding last season. Anas Edathodika caught my eye among Indians this season. He tried to raise his level playing among foreigners, formed a solid partnership John Riise in the defence for Delhi Dynamos FC, and even scored a goal.

Kerala Blasters FC attract huge crowds back home for ISL matches in Kochi. In your view, what attracts fans to stadiums these days when matches are shown live on television?

Kochi attracts the maximum crowds anywhere in India for the Indian Super League, averaging 55,000 at least. This is happening because at one time, each district in Kerala had its own tournament for fans to enjoy live action, now that phase is over. ISL is giving them that opportunity again, attracting fans from faraway places. The atmosphere at the venue (Jawaharlal Nehru stadium) is like a football carnival.

Will Indian football benefit from staging the ISL?

ISL should benefit Indian clubs and the national squad. Playing alongside foreigners in every team creates a different atmosphere for the chosen Indians. Our players train with foreigners and see how these players bring their skills to the match situations. Indians have to raise their level. One example is Sandesh Jhingan last season. Sunil Chetri and Mohammed Rafi are among regular goal-scorers this time, their tally is better than many foreign forwards.

The ISL champions cannot represent India at international club competitions like AFC Cup, whether Atletico de Kolkata last year or the champion team this year. India can be represented only by the I-League champion team, so I hope the ISL, with its foreign coaches and foreign stars, results in improved quality when players return to I-League clubs. There is talk about merging ISL and I-League. Traditional clubs like Mohun Bagan would not like losing their identity to ATK, for example. The path to a merger is easier when new clubs enter the football scene. I-League teams are shutting down. Let us wait and watch.

In your days, what did Mumbai fans expect from Kerala stars? Do you recall any special performances here?

There are lots of Keralites among football fans in Mumbai. They expect a certain class from a Kerala footballer, whether representing the state or any outside club. They feel that a Kerala footballer has quality, without which he would not get paid to play, whether for the state in Santosh Trophy or by a club. As a professional player, it became my responsibility to be aware of expectations and live up to that image in the mind of a football fan.

I was aware stepping out of the dressing room at the Cooperage and tried to reach that level. Those were days when football matches attracted packed stadiums during the Rovers Cup and the Santosh Trophy. I was happy to add to fans enjoyment by scoring some goals at critical times for FC Kochin here. Whether playing for SBT, Kerala Police, JCT, Mohun Bagaan or East Bengal, I tried to give everything I had for my team and am grateful to football fans across India for their appreciation.

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