Huge following in a small town

The massive crowd at the Manjeri District Sports Complex Stadium watching the Sporting Goa-Rangdajied match in the Federation Cup football tournament.-

Manjeri is a shining example of football alive and kicking in small towns, and it did what a big city like Kochi couldn’t. Manjeri certainly deserves the right to host more football tournaments in future and can aspire to be a permanent venue in the Indian football calendar, writes M. R. Praveen Chandran.

The beautiful game of football was the most popular game in Kerala until international cricket made its appearance in the State in the late 90s. After that, there has been a steady drop in attendance for football matches so much that tournaments like the Santosh Trophy, Federation Cup and I-league were played before empty galleries in Kochi and other parts of the State.

But Malappuram, which prides itself as the football capital of Kerala, has bucked the trend time and again. Football is ingrained in the ethos of the district where even a ‘sevens’ tournament is played before a sellout crowd.

When KFA allotted the league matches of the 35th Federation Cup to the district, which had never hosted a major all-India tournament before, it was an acknowledgement of the passion and interest the people of Malappuram have for football.

And the public didn’t disappoint. The tournament was a roaring success financially with the stadium bursting at the seams on all the six days of the competition.

The tickets for the opening day’s matches were sold out two days before the kick-off. The newly constructed Malappuram District Sports Complex Stadium in Payyanad near Manjeri had a capacity of 20,000, but a few thousands more had squeezed into it on the first day leaving several thousands outside.

Nazar, an autorickshaw driver, was one of unlucky ones who couldn’t get inside the stadium on the first day. “I had a season ticket but I was a little bit late on the first day and couldn’t get in.’’

The sellout crowd on the first day was expected but there were sceptics who said the interest would wane once the tournament progressed. They pointed out that spectators in Malappuram were more accustomed to watching ‘sevens’ football where action was quicker than in a normal football game.

But they were proved wrong. On every match day, a capacity crowd witnessed action in the middle and this was in stark contrast to the empty galleries of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi where the other league matches were being played.

On the final day, for the crucial league matches in Group ‘B’, the tickets were sold out hours before the kick-off and police had to resort to mild lathi-charge and lock the main gates to disburse the frustrated spectators.

The stadium and its surroundings wore a festive look on match days. The road to the stadium was taken up by hawkers and makeshift eateries on either side of the road sold everything from roasted chicken to dum biriyani.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was terrific. The noise made by drums and pipes was deafening and the crowd cheered every good move made by the teams. However, they reserved the biggest applause for the underdogs.

Teams like Bhawanipore and United Sikkim FC weren’t to be blamed if they thought they were playing at home.

Indian captain Sunil Chettri was pleasantly surprised with the support his team Bengaluru FC got in the tournament. “The crowd is amazing. It was very supportive and it is good to see them coming in numbers to cheer us. For a while I thought I was playing in Bengaluru. The ground was also excellent,” he said.

Bhawanipore’s Brazilian coach Juliano Silviera Fontana was dumb-struck by the support his team got from the crowd. “The crowd was behind us when we scored the opening goal against Dempo. It was fantastic to see such support for us at a neutral venue. It is a knowledgeable crowd as well. They booed us when we slowed down the game and started supporting Dempo,” said Fontana.

Santosh Kashyap, the Rangdajied coach whose team was popular among the crowd, and Indian coach Kovermans, who was widely cheered when he made a brief appearance at the stadium, praised the crowd and the facilities at the stadium.

It was sheer love of football that brought people to a venue which was not very accessible through public transport system.

The stadium was eight kilometres away from Manjeri town and 20 kilometres from the district headquarters and there was only limited bus service to reach there. The KSRTC and the private bus operators also didn’t run any special services during match days. But this didn’t deter the spectators who came in droves to cheer for their favourite teams. They came by foot, by two-wheelers, by cars and jeeps to fill every available space in the gallery. They also braved the sultry sun and sat through the two matches, enjoying every bit of it.

Manjeri is a shining example of football alive and kicking in small towns, and it did what a big city like Kochi couldn’t. Manjeri certainly deserves the right to host more football tournaments in future and can aspire to be a permanent venue in the Indian football calendar.