From Blasters to Gokulam: How Kerala rediscovered its passion for football

As Bino George, Kerala’s Santosh Trophy-winning coach, puts it: “More than ‘we are back’, it’s ‘we are back on track.’” That much is indisputable. The football teams from the calm, southern backwaters are creating a splash.

With Gokulam Kerala beating Mohammedan Sporting 2-1 in Saturday’s season finale to become the first team to defend the I-League title, the coastal state now has teams dominating all levels of domestic football – champions of the I-League, champions of women’s league , winners of the national championship aka Santosh Trophy and runners-up of the top division, the Indian Super League (ISL).

Their run also settles one of the biggest paradoxes in Indian sport; that of a state so obsessed, so crazy about football and yet, a laggard at the national level, living in the afterglow of the 90s golden generation.

That’s the period when, George gushes, thousands swayed to the tunes of Kerala Police, which had ‘9-10 players who played for India’, and FC Kochin, the country’s first professional club. That dominance waned after the turn of the century.

For more than a decade, the proud, progressive footballing state had no – or at best, token – representation in the I-League, once the country’s premier division but now relegated to the second tier. As a knock-on effect, it stopped mass-producing players. Between 2012 and 2016, no players from the region made it to the national team and even after that, there were barely one or two who wore the national team colours.

Their spectacular fall from grace wasn’t really a mystery. “After the golden years, we had a phase where no spectators were interested in local football from the stands,” George says. “There was no motivation, no jobs, no clubs, and no tournaments. That’s why it went down.”

The Blasters factor

At last, they seem to have turned a corner. And the Keralites unanimously agree on the one factor that sparked the revival. “The arrival of Blasters,” says VC Praveen, the president of two-time I-League champions Gokulam Kerala.

Praveen says the absence from the national scene in football suddenly led to the locals ‘taking up cricket in a big way’, which was perhaps the Sreesanth effect. “(But) with the arrival of Blasters, again football started on an upward trajectory,” he adds.

The ISL, often accused of stomping out the legacy clubs, has been a punching bag for Indian football traditionalists. But in Kerala, when the franchise was floated in 2014, it stirred a giant. “They filled the void that was left after Viva Kerala and FC Kochi. After many years, the fans had a team they could back,” George says.

The sight of 60,000-plus yellow shirts bouncing at the stands during every home match of the Blasters served as a reminder to the locals of their love for the game. So much so, that many were charmed back to it. Like Gokulam.

The conglomerate had already burnt its fingers while operating a club in Kerala – their Viva Kerala venture had failed and the club got dissolved in 2012. But the sustained manner in which Blasters managed to attract thousands every weekend got Praveen interested once again.

Gokulam’s emergence

And in 2017, Praveen convinced Gokulam – which has businesses spanning hospitality, mineral water and financial sectors – to enter the I-League directly through the AIFF’s corporate bidding policy, which allows companies to pay a fee to purchase a franchise. “I said to the chairman, let’s give it three or four years. If we do not succeed, we’ll close down, what’s going to stop us?” Praveen says.

There’s nothing stopping them now, with the team winning two I-League titles in their five years of existence and also becoming the champions of the women’s league.

Gokulam, and Blasters’, success is a reflection of all that’s going right in Kerala. They didn’t really have to reinvent the wheel; just needed someone to nudge them, instead.

“Once ISL came and Blasters became popular, people started coming back to football and players started taking things seriously again,” Praveen says. “That was a boost to the association as well, and they started to hold the state league regularly. Then, we entered the scene and have been doing well. Kerala United has now come up and we have around 20 teams in two groups in the Kerala Premier League. Today, everyone wants to own a team in Kerala, so many are ready to invest. When they saw the success we are getting, the huge fan base of Blasters… they want to enter the scene.”

Organic ecosystem

There isn’t any secret formula to this; just doing the simple things right over a number of years –academies have mushroomed, college-level tournaments began, a robust local league took shape and the players got more match time. This organic ecosystem is also the reason why tiny states like Mizoram have produced I-League and Santosh Trophy-winning sides in the last decade, apart from being a reliable conveyor belt of talent.

George gives an example of the depth of talent in Kerala, especially the Malabar belt. “I was at a college in Mampad, one of the football hubs in Kerala, where I spotted a young player, walked up to him and offered him to sign for Kerala United. It wasn’t a lot of money, just Rs 7,000 per month. But the player was very happy because he never played anything other than inter-college tournaments. He readily agreed,” George, regarded as one of the best talent scouts and coaches in Kerala, says.

That player was Jesin TK, one of the stars of Kerala’s Santosh Trophy title. Jessin now is in an I-League and Santosh Trophy combined All-Stars team for a friendly against the national team, and George says ISL teams have already approached the player, offering up to Rs 25 lakh.

George won two Santosh Trophy titles by forming a squad of players, who were mostly plucked from obscurity like Jesin. Those players have then gone on to play for clubs within and outside Kerala. “When we entered the I-League, we had to depend on players from Calcutta, Goa and the North East,” Praveen says. “This year, except the ruling, all our domestic players are Keralites mostly.”

The interest among investors, a spurt of clubs across districts in Kerala and the abundance of local players give Prave hope that ‘Kerala will be an unstoppable force in Indian football.’

George, whose optimism is infectious, is more measured. “I just hope we return to the phase that was in the 90s,” he says. “I just hope that people in Kerala return to football.”

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