Sevens — the passion of Malappuram

Sevens football keeps the beautiful game alive in Kerala. It also helps players of varying skills make a living.

FIFA Manjeri goalkeeper pulls off a diving save in a sevens match against Alukkas, Thrissur.   -  SAKEER HUSSAIN

It is about 8.30 in the night when one reaches Mampad, which is a couple of hours by road from Kozhikode. K. Kunhalan Kutty, or Kuttikka as everyone calls him, is waiting in front of the Friends Floodlit Stadium. The ‘stadium’ actually is just a plot of land owned by Kutty. The stands, made of bamboo, can accommodate about 5,000 people, but at the moment, there are not even a hundred spectators.

“People would come by the time the game kicks off,” says Kutty.

However, one is sceptical, though. The kick-off is just 15 minutes away. “It is a big match, the biggest yet in the tournament,” Kutty informs.

A little later, the two teams, FIFA, Manjeri, and Alukkas, Thrissur, make their way to the ground. They are greeted loudly by the spectators, who prove Kutty right: the stadium is by now almost full.

Kunhalan Kutty, the organiser of Sevens tournament in Mampad.   -  SAKEER HUSSAIN

“It is the first leg of the semifinal, but only the result counts, not the score,” says Kutty. “It doesn’t matter if a team loses by seven goals; all it has to do is to win the second leg, even by a solitary goal, to force the tie-breaker. Sometimes, the semifinals are played in a best-of-three format. That is, if the teams are tied with one win each after two games, a deciding semifinal match will be played.”

Sounds strange? Welcome to the strange, but fascinating world of ‘sevens’ football.

It is a format that keeps the beautiful game alive in Kerala; helps players of varying skills make a living; attracts reasonably good football players from African countries; gives organisers considerable profits; contributes significantly to charity, and entertains a football-crazy populace.

Most of the sevens tournaments are played in the Malappuram District, but there are some good ones in the neighbouring areas such as Kozhikode and Palakkad, as well. The organisers ensure that they get some of the most glamorous teams for their tournaments. FIFA and Alukkas are two such clubs.

The FIFA Manjeri players are dressed in green and Alukkas in orange.

Just before the teams enter the field, you are treated to an unusual sight: water taps come up from beneath the ground and begin to sprinkle water on the entire playing field. Once the job is done, the taps disappear. They, however, would come back during the interval. They ensure the playing field remains as much dust-free as possible.

There is an electronic scoreboard, too. As the players, and the referees, dressed in blue and black, take their positions on the pitch, the National Anthem is played over the public address system. Everyone stands up.

At 9.30, with a half moon above, the match kicks off. It will last 60 minutes — not 90 — and will be played over two halves.

Shahid Safar enthrals the spectators with his juggling skills during half-time break.   -  SAKEER HUSSAIN

The ground is smaller than the one used for regular football. There are only seven players on either side — as opposed to 11 in regular football. The rules, though, remain the same, more or less. There is, however, an area called free zone — one third of the playing area — where a rival player cannot be ruled off-side.

“One of the attractions of sevens football is the relentless action and the possibility of multiple goals in just about every match,” says Kutty. “You will find moves towards the rival goal all the time.”

The players of FIFA and Alukkas, as if on cue, take no time to settle down and launch swift attacks on each other’s territory. Many of them are talented footballers, you would realise. There are also two foreign players on each side.

Alukkas scores the first goal of the match, in the third minute. The long-ranger by Alex beats the FIFA custodian, Sujith, comfortably.

The Manjeri team, however, equalises before long, with Raheem scoring off a rebound. The score remains 1-1 at half-time.

There is more entertainment during the interval. A young footballer gives an exhibition of juggling that is widely appreciated by the players and the spectators, who run on to the field and reward him with cash. The organisers are also collecting money from the spectators sitting in the stands.

The juggler’s name is Shahid Safar, Kutty informs. “His act is pretty popular,” he says. “And he often performs during the break in tournaments like this. Most of his fee is taken care of by the contributions from spectators.”

The second half of the match turns out to be as intense as the first. There are a couple of tense moments with the players arguing with the referee, but that does not affect the fast pace of the game. FIFA then takes the lead through Kuttan, who finishes off a nice move with a neat drive past the goalkeeper. Alukkas tries to fight back, but the night belongs to the Manjeri side.

From here, FIFA travels to Kalpakancheri, which is some 60 km away, for its next assignment. Kalpakancheri is a village near Kottakkal, the town well known for its Ayurveda hospital (Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala).

Kalpakancheri is one of those villages in Malappuram District where at least one man from most of the families is working in the Gulf. Some of them plan their annual holidays in such a way that they could watch the sevens tournament. Like T. Alavi, who works as a driver in Bahrain.

“Football is the biggest passion of my life,” says Alavi. “I used to be a player in my younger days. Now I come home, this time of the year, to watch the sevens tournaments.”

READ: I. M. Vijayan on Sevens Football

Alavi is among the spectators who have come to watch the quarterfinal match between Sky Blue, Edappal, and Super Studio, Malappuram. The stands are full. Many of the spectators are like Alavi; they have played the game. Some of them play coach. “If you get the ball, cut inside and try to score; don’t pass so soon,” yells one at a Super Studio striker.

You are not sure if it is because of all those unsolicited advices, but Super Studio wins the closely-fought match 2-1. Patrick Singbah is one of the architects of Super Studio’s victory. He is 19 and is from Liberia. He is one of the many foreign footballers playing for various clubs. A club can field only two of them.

Singbah plays for Nimba United in the First Division in Liberia. “It has been a highly enjoyable experience for me; it is great playing in front of such fantastic crowds,” he says. “It took me some time to get used to the conditions and the format, but I feel quite at home now.”

Fellow-Liberian Francis Guah is one of the main players of FIFA. “I came to know about sevens football from a senior player back home,” he says. “The only thing you have to worry about playing sevens football is that you could get injured due to poor ground conditions of certain tournaments. But the atmosphere is great. So is the money.”

Foreign players like Guah earn something like Rs. 7 lakh in a season. There is bigger money for international stars. A current ISL player — an Indian forward — was paid Rs. 100,000 for appearing in just two games.

Local players may get only a fraction of that, but they could make a substantial amount before the season is over. They would easily get to play more than 100 matches during the season, which begins in December and goes on until the monsoon arrives in June. Over a dozen tournaments would be played at one time.

“Even an unknown player would get at least Rs. 1,000 per game,” says Kutty. “There are many young men who make enough money that they do not have to do any other job. Mind you, there could be well over 100 tournaments in a season. If your team reaches the final of a tournament, you could get to play six matches.”

A tournament lasts a month. Most of them make profit, especially when sponsors contribute generously. Still, the bulk of the revenue is from the sale of tickets, which are priced anywhere between Rs. 40 and Rs. 80.

The tournament in Mampad, though, would only just about break even, according to Kutty. “Conducting a tournament is a risky business; you would have to spend about Rs. 80,000 for a match featuring two reputed sides,” he says. “But, there are many tournaments that have made huge profits. One tournament in Malappuram District made a profit of Rs. 28 lakh this year.”

A large chunk of the profit made by many tournaments is spent on charity. The organisers of the Kalpakancheri tournament are, in fact, spending the entire profit (about Rs. 8 lakh) for noble causes. “Much of the money would go to patients suffering from kidney ailments,” says T. P. Shahid, one of the organisers. “We are also giving a good amount to the government school in our locality.”

Former India captain U. Sharaf Ali, however, is of the view that the organisers should also earmark some amount for the development of football. “Of late, I find many organisers spending the entire profit on charity,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with doing something for the society, but the organisers should ensure that a substantial part of the profit is kept aside for the development of football, like setting up an academy. They should not forget the fact that they could conduct football tournaments if only there are footballers.”

Sharaf adds that he has pleasant memories of playing in sevens tournaments. “It was for Areekode Brothers that I played mostly,” he says. “From the age of 13, till I retired at 35, I played sevens football regularly. It provided an excellent match experience and helped me grow as a footballer. Many of my team-mates — be it from India, Kerala or Kerala Police — were also there, representing various clubs. And I recall there were even players from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Goa.”

Spectators brace up for a match in a sevens tournament in Kottakkal. The organisers ensure that they get some of the most glamorous teams for their tournaments, which in turn attracts huge crowds.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In his playing days, there were no foreign players, recalls Sharaf. “They began to appear on the sevens grounds only a decade ago; some of these young men are quite talented,” he says. “It is good that a team could have only two foreigners, which wasn’t the case initially. I remember there were teams with as many as six foreign players.”

It is mostly from countries such as Costa Rica, Sudan and Nigeria that the players are recruited. Malappuram’s foreign connection with football dates back to centuries, however.

“It was the British officers who introduced football to Malappuram; when the relations between them and the natives soured after the riots of 1921, they tried to use it as a medium to get closer,” says author Madhu Janardhanan. “There were even matches between the booted British and the barefooted natives.”

Madhu says sevens football would have originated because there were not many large playfields for normal, 11-a-side football games. “Football was played on makeshift grounds, often on the paddy fields,” he says. “Even now, small tournaments are played on paddy fields.”

Veteran journalist Ravi Menon says sevens football was popular in Malappuram and other parts of northern Kerala even in the 1950s. “Ahmed Khan, who played for India in the Olympics of 1948 and 1952, had once told me that he had played in a sevens tournament at Valapattanam, near Kannur,” he says. “He was paid handsomely, too.”

The player salary makes managing a sevens club an expensive affair. “In my team the minimum pay of a player is Rs. 2,000 per match,” says Yashik Thurakkal, manager of FIFA, which has won four titles this season and appeared in 11 finals. “Still we have been able to break even, and there are also clubs that have made good profits.”

And there are clubs, such as the one owned by Kutty, that could even make losses. “But, I am not bothered about that,” he says. “What really matters is that my club has produced a dozen players who have gone on to represent Kerala.”

Such pride and passion ensure that sevens football would continue to thrive in Malappuram.