Gone are the glory days

Former Indian star I. M. Vijayan interacts with some Chennai players at a training session.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

If Kerala football suffers, so too will Indian football. Kerala has been one of the biggest providers of talent to Indian football, after all, writes P.K. Ajith Kumar.

As he speaks about his golden days in Kolkata, I. M. Vijayan’s voice betrays a teeny bit of pride. Pride not of his own success, but of being a footballer from Kerala.

“Those days, back in the 1990s, a footballer from Kerala was looked upon with awe,” says Vijayan, one of the finest footballers this country has ever produced. “You guys are tigers, they used to tell me. Outstanding talents just continued to flow out of our tiny State. The quality of our players surprised everyone. We had V. P. Sathyan, C. V. Pappachan, U. Sharaf Ali, K. T. Chacko, Kurikesh Mathew, Mathew Varghese, Jo Paul Ancheri…”

There was a time when a majority of the Indian team was from Kerala. “I remember having around nine players from Kerala at an Indian camp,” says Vijayan. “And there were occasions when five of us actually made the XI.”

Cut to the present day. You have just one player from Kerala who made it to the Indian team.

“The situation could get even worse,” warns Victor Manjila, one of the several internationals Kerala has given Indian football. “I am quite worried about the state of football in my State.”

His fears are not misplaced. Kerala would have to go through another season without an I-League team. There are no regular football tournaments. Whatever football is played, there are no spectators to watch. University football has come a long way down from glory days. Schools are happily replacing their playfields with buildings. Games like cricket are attracting more and more young athletes.

“Football, I believe, is still the favourite sport for most Malayalis and is still played more than any other sport by our kids across the State, but we have to act if we want to keep it the way it is,” says Victor, the former Indian goalkeeper who has also had a successful career as the coach of Calicut University. “There are many reasons for the current plight of Kerala football, but the main among them is the decline of our clubs.”

True. Kerala has always had strong clubs, long before the advent of Kerala Police and FC Kochin. Clubs like Premier Tyres, Travancore Titanium, Alind Kundara, Young Challengers, Central Excise, Keltron, Lucky Stars, Spirited Youth, Brothers Kannur, A.G.’s Office, FACT, KSRTC, KSEB and SBT had a huge following and they all produced fine footballers. More importantly, they had regular tournaments across Kerala to showcase their wares.

“We had tournaments like Sait Nagjee (Kozhikode), G. V. Raja (Thiruvananthapuram), Sree Narayana (Kannur), Chackola (Thrissur), Golden Jubilee (Kollam), Mammen Mappila (Kottayam) and Nehru Trophy (Kochi), besides the KFA Shield,” says Victor. “And the State inter-club championship itself was played with great intensity. After the fall of those teams, FC Kochin, India’s first professional club, did flourish for a while and Viva Kerala was our last representative at the I-League.”

Both FC Kochin and Viva Kerala folded up because they simply didn’t have the money. You cannot run a football team just on your passion alone.

Viva Kerala... the last team from the State to play in the I-League-S.K. MOHAN

“How long can an investor, especially when his pocket is not deep enough, sustain a club when he gets nothing in return?” Victor asks. “I think Kerala’s only option is to form a club as a public limited company.”

The Kerala Football Association (KFA) did try to put together a consortium and have a Kochi-based club at the I-League for the next season. “But the All India Football Federation’s stipulations, such as the company should have a net worth of Rs. 500 crores, were too tough for us,” says the KFA secretary P. Anil Kumar. “We are still hopeful of having an I-League club, maybe in 2014-15.”

When, or rather if, such a club comes up C. K. Vineeth, the lone Malayali face in the current Indian squad, would love to join it. “I am playing football just because I was picked and trained by Viva Kerala,” says the Prayag United midfielder. “If we do not have Kerala-based clubs in the I-League, it would be very difficult for new players to get noticed.”

Vijayan was the hero of Vineeth as he grew up in his village in Kannur district. And Vijayan himself had heroes from Kerala football, such as Thomas Sebastian and Xavier Pius. There has never been a dearth of football heroes in Kerala. The State produced five Olympians and won the Santosh Trophy five times. Its Universities dominated the All-India inter-university football scene for decades. And football fans packed the stadia.

“I remember spectators queuing up outside the ground in Kozhikode from the morning, hours before the kick-off in the Sait Nagjee tournament and that was a great sight for a footballer watching from inside the team bus,” says Vijayan. “I could understand the excitement of the audience; it was after watching the Chackola tournament from the stands in my hometown of Thrissur as a young boy that I wanted to be a footballer.”

For a young boy in Kerala today, it won’t be easy to find inspiration to play football. He would find it easier to take up cricket: there is an academy in every district, excellent grounds across the State and if you could play in the National domestic championship, you would be paid in lakhs for your efforts. And yes, there is also the IPL, in which seven Kerala cricketers got contracts this past season.

“The Kerala Cricket Association has done a lot of good things of late,” says Victor. “Our football administrators too should get their act together. There are many things wrong with the way the sport is run here. You know a kid is forced to play as many as five games on a day in official inter-school tournaments.”

Besides taking proper care of young talents, the KFA could also conduct a premier league for clubs, says Victor. “Something has to be done to strengthen our club football before it is too late,” he adds.

Vijayan nods in agreement. “Good clubs produce good players,” he says. “And we could learn from little known clubs like Rangdajied United FC of Shillong, which won the I-League Second Division this year.”

It is not just the authorities in Kerala that have to listen to the likes of Vijayan and Victor. If Kerala football suffers, so too will Indian football. Kerala has been one of the biggest providers of talent to Indian football, after all.