There are currently no players from Kerala in the Indian football team. For the last three years, there has also been no team from Kerala in the I-League. For a state that prides itself on its footballing pedigree, these facts are a stark, unwelcome reminder of reality. They are also very painful.
The despair in the Kerala Blasters midfielder Sushanth Mathew's voice as he talks about football in the state is palpable. Mathew has been playing the game for 14 years and he knows things have gone wrong but he can't pinpoint the reason. A bit of a shrug, a shake of the head, a wistful smile is all that he can offer as an answer.
"In the last 10-15 years, football has not been up to the mark in Kerala," Mathew said.
Once upon a time, football dominated every other sport in Kerala. Along with Goa and Bengal, Kerala was one of the states where passion for football trumped cricket. The list of players that have come out of the state - O. Chandrasekharan, CC Jacob, Victor Manjila, IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Sethumadhavan, Xaviour Pious, Najeeb, Sharf Ali, VP Sathyan, CV Pappachan – is long and glorious.
At one point, five players from Kerala were part of India’s first XI. That is the kind of domination matched only by Mumbai in Indian cricket. There was no dearth of clubs and spectators flocked to the stadiums in large numbers for popular tournaments such as the Kerala Trophy, GV Raja Trophy, Mammen Mappilay Cup, and the Nehru Cup.
"Earlier, during the Thrissur Santosh Trophy in 1999-2000. huge crowds thronged the stadium to watch their heroes I M Vijayan and Joe Paul Ancheri and the Kerala team was doing well too," Mathew said. “And wherever Kerala Santosh Trophy team played, the atmosphere was happening."
The first professional football club in India was from Kerala - FC Kochin. Then came Viva Kerala but the state had strong clubs such as Premier Tyres, KSRTC, AG’s Office, Young Challengers Kalamassery, Alind Kundara, Titanium and Kerala Police before that too.
Not often in any sport do we witness golden generations being produced on a consistent basis. But the plethora of tournaments and clubs ensured the state produced players ready to carry forward the legacy of the previous generation.
Fast forward to 2014 and the story has completely turned. FC Kochin and Viva Kerala have shut down, cricket has overtaken football and a national team spot seems far away. There has been a sudden downward spiral and it caught everyone ball-watching.
According to Kerala Football Association secretary Anil Kumar, the increase in competition from other sports and lack of infrastructure are the two main reasons behind the decline of football in the state.
"In the olden days, only two or three states used to play football on a higher level. So the players from only those states were recognised and hence the number of players that get into the national team were only from states like Bengal, Kerala, Goa and so on... so the name of Kerala was always highlighted in a big way in those days. Now the picture has changed. Football has grown to all parts of the country and the competition also in the same level,” Kumar said.
The work put in by the Kerala Cricket Association illustrates why football has been passed. Each of the 14 districts has a cricket academy and there is a state academy, three zonal academies and a women's academy — making it 24 academies in all. The KCA also takes care of food, accommodation, coaching, schooling and education for the kids.
There are multiple tournaments running throughout the year, approximately 30-40, including the school tournaments which span the state. The coaches are trained professionally.
Then there is the money. If you play Ranji Trophy, you can earn Rs 2.5 lakhs per match. Former players get pensions.
Compare this to football and there is a visible huge gulf. Today, there are just four major tournaments held in the state - Kerala Premier League, State championship, State club championship, Club league. And while there is a huge following of seven-a-side football in the state - only a few tournaments are recognised by the KFA.
"We didn't have good professional clubs in Kerala and hence I left Kerala in search for clubs where I could get opportunities,” said Mathew, who has played for Mahindra United, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan over the course of his career. “The clubs like Viva Kerala and FC Kochin were not financially sound, they didn't have enough money to pay players. I went to Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata for better offers. I am a professional player and I had to do that.”
Infrastructure woes only add to the complications. The football pitches in the state are in a bad condition. The problem is compounded by the lack of real estate. Empty spaces aren't allowed to stay that way. Worse still, as part of the state's educational revolution, schools have started constructing new buildings for additional courses, reducing the space for sports.
"We don't have training places for the kids to train right now,” Kumar, the KFA secretary, said. “So families worry about the safety of the players. This is unlike olden days. During those times, there were ten boys in a house, now it's just two — so parents are concerned about a body contact game. At the age of six, we need to start the grassroots but 90 percent of Indians don't allow their kids at this age to go and play football."
KFA also haven’t been supported as well as they might have been, claims Kumar. “FIFA has give plenty of artificial turfs to the North East states, they have got the infrastructure which is the primary requirement for developing a system. Once the infrastructure is there, the league system is also in place and hence the companies are also ready to invest in sports. We, on the other hand, have got nothing. There is no one supporting us from the outside."
However, change is finally afoot. KFA have started 140 grassroot centers in Kerala, 10 in every district. These leagues will be handled by the district FA's who will receive funds from KFA. They started the Kerala Premier League last year and there are also conducting various inter-school tournaments.
"In the near future, we need at least 2000 coaches so we are looking for qualified coaches with the support of AIFF. By the end of 2015, hopefully we will be able to achieve the 2000 mark. These coaches can reach 20,000 kids. If we are able to get 2000 coaches, then within three years of time, we target to bring at least 8-10 players in the national squad from our state," said Anil Kumar.
The KFA have also tied up with the UAE Football Association and there will be exchange programs for kids as well as senior level teams. Keeping in mind the all-important 2017 Under-17 Football World Cup in India, importance is given to infrastructure development too. Six new grounds are being developed adjacent to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi only for training purpose, including an artificial one from FIFA.
And amidst all this, the arrival of the Indian Super League has acted as a catalyst. Suddenly, the state is bubbling with enthusiasm for football again.
"Everyone knows that we have got talent, but they aren't getting the right guidance from a young age,” Mathew said. “But now with the arrival of ISL, the grassroot level programs are taking place. The kids will get to learn and get the basic knowledge about the game. The ISL has already created an impact. Everyone's attracted to it so parents have started supporting their kids and with tournament taking place regularly, I am expecting some corporates to come up with a really good professional club in Kerala.”
The ISL rules also state that each team should spend Rs 2 crore for the development of the game at grassroots level and should build a football academy within five years in their respective places.
"I strongly get that feeling that there will be a day — football will be the no.1 sport in Kerala as well as in India," says Mathew with a twinkle in his eye.
Kerala is marketed around the world as 'God's Own Country' because of the natural beauty of its backwaters and beaches. But right now there is a distinct difference as you drive through the roads of Kochi. This time, there are hoardings of Sachin Tendulkar beaming at you. And they say 'Football's own country.'
And in a few years, Kerala hopes that won't be just an ad. It will be the truth.
Updated Date: Dec 04, 2014 17:35:14 IST