Gokulam Kerala, a fillip to the beautiful game in god’s own country

Homegrown professional clubs from the State had run into troubled waters after the initial excitement. Both FC Kochin and Viva Kerala had to be wound up as funds dried up. But unlike them, Gokulam has a single owner with deep pockets.

The victorious Gokulam Kerala team which won the I-League title this season.

When the ISL was formed in 2013, the I-League clubs may have harboured doubts about their future. After all, the ISL was richer and more glamorous.

The last eight years have proved that their fears were not unfounded. Much of the focus during an Indian football season is on the ISL, with assured quality coverage across platforms including digital, while the I-League doesn’t even reach all the fans who want to watch it on television at their homes.

But, the I-League owners continue to invest heavily on their clubs. For instance, Gokulam Kerala has spent Rs. 5 crore this season. It proved money well-spent, though. Gokulam emerged as the I-League champion in dramatic fashion in Kolkata in the last week of March.

The final day of the league had dawned with the possibilities of three teams being crowned the winner — Churchill Brothers and TRAU were the others. A win for Gokulam against TRAU at the Kishore Bharati Krirangan ground would have ended all other possibilities.

Gokulam did win that deciding match, despite being 1-0 down with 20 minutes remaining. The men from Kozhikode slammed in four goals to author a remarkable comeback, which also gave the football-crazy Kerala its first title in India’s 25-year-history of professional football leagues.

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For V. C. Praveen, the club’s president, one of the objectives, when he formed Gokulam four years ago, was to bring the I-League title to Kerala. Though the southern State has given India many of its greatest players, like I. M. Vijayan, Olympian Rahman and Jo Paul Ancheri, it could never produce a champion in the I-League or the ISL. Remember, the I-League’s history dates back to 1996 (it was called National Football League then) and the best Kerala Blasters could do at the ISL was to finish runner-up in 2014 and 2016.

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The game has declined in Kerala, no doubt. The State is no longer the dominant force it used to be in Indian football.

“We hope our victory at the I-League will revitalise the game in Kerala,” says Praveen. “Many people, including owners of other clubs in the State, told me that Kerala needed to win this title. So we are all happy that we could bring the cup to Kerala.”

Praveen’s joy is understandable. When he succeeded in convincing his father-in-law and founder of the Gokulam group of companies, Gokulam Gopalan, to set up a football club, he was well aware of the fact that the road ahead would not be easy.

Homegrown professional clubs from the State had run into troubled waters after the initial excitement. Both FC Kochin and Viva Kerala had to be wound up as funds dried up. But unlike them, Gokulam has a single owner with deep pockets.

“I wasn’t keen to be part of a consortium when the Kerala Football Association approached us with such an idea,” recalls Praveen. “After seeing the failures of FC Kochin and Viva Kerala, I thought such a model might not work.”

He says the company is not viewing Gokulam Kerala as a standalone entity. “So we are not looking at things like breaking even,” he says. “But we are glad that the club’s evaluation has grown considerably over the last four years.”

He is disappointed that the I-League is not getting the recognition it deserves. “I think the issue of telecasting has to be resolved,” he says. “We have seen the quality of football is pretty high in the I-League, but the AIFF has to ensure that it is showcased properly and that it reaches fans across the country.”

Gokulam’s Italian coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese’s attacking brand of football made his side the I-League champion in his maiden season in India.

 

The I-League could do with more attention, but the event still matters a great a deal for the clubs as well as the players. With the departures from the I-League in the recent past of two giants of Indian football, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — both the Kolkata teams play in the ISL now — it has lost some sheen.

The merger of the ISL and the I-League, in fact, seems to be the way forward for the sport in India. In 2022-23, the I-League champion will qualify for the ISL, without having to pay the participating fee of Rs. 15 crore.

“I have always thought it wouldn’t be prudent to pay that kind of money to participate in the ISL,” says Praveen. “Gokulam would rather play at the ISL by winning the I-League title in 2022-23.”

That must be motivation enough for Gokulam’s players, like Emil Benny, the midfielder who was a revelation at this year’s I-League. He was named the player of the deciding match against TRAU and the I-League’s emerging player.

He was an unknown 20-year-old from Wayanad until he was drafted into the main squad from the reserves by Gokulam’s Italian coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese, the man whose attacking brand of football made his side the I-League champion in his maiden season in India.

Emil is bound to attract attention from ISL clubs, much like Arjun Jayaraj did a couple of years ago.

The speedy Gokulam striker was bought by Kerala Blasters for Rs. 21 lakh. An injury at the beginning of the 2019-20 season meant his ISL career did not take off; he has since parted ways with the Kochi-based club.

“That we could produce a player like Arjun is a matter of pride for Gokulam,” says Praveen. “It shows we are growing as a club. We know that we will have to spend more if we have to be competent at the ISL; budget has never been a constraint for us.”

For youngsters like Arjun and Emily, the I-League is a great platform to show the world what they are capable of. Something Bidyashagar Singh did this season.

The 23-year-old striker from Manipur was the top-scorer with 12 goals. He is only the fourth Indian to win the I-League’s golden boot after Bhaichung Bhutia, Raman Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri.

Young guns like Bidyashagar and Emil are reasons enough for Indian football to take a closer look at the I-League.