Kerala Blasters must repay state's unconditional love with greater grassroots involvement
Clubs have come and gone in Kerala's football history and all have failed to translate the passionate support into a football superpower in the country.
Shops were decorated with yellow balloons and ribbons, men in yellow jerseys unfurled yellow flags, people chanted their team's name as they sped away on their bikes, countless faces were painted in yellow, and the sounds of trumpets and dhols added to the setting. Kochi had done their bit to be ready for their biggest sporting moment in some time.
Fans of Kerala Blasters, who had come from different parts of the state, had gathered outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium more than 12 hours before the Indian Super League (ISL) final against Atletico de Kolkata on 18 December. Kochi had started the party at the crack of dawn on their big day.
However, for the local people, this carnival atmosphere was hardly a rarity. "This is very common here. We see such crowd for every Kerala Blasters game," said a police officer on duty outside the stadium.
There were fans from places like Coimbatore who had travelled all the way to Kochi without a ticket, but not without a deep desire to cheer their team to victory. They stood outside the ground in the hope of getting their hands on a ticket and the scorching heat of the day did little to break their resolve.
Sixty thousand-odd Kerala Blasters supporters inside the stadium ensured the final was nothing less than a spectacle despite their team losing, and they didn't leave the arena before chanting their heroes' names for one last time before the season drew to a close. Extra time and penalties meant the match went deep into the evening, but that didn't keep the Kerala fans from waiting outside the stadium until the team left the stadium premises in their bus.
Atletico de Kolkata may have spoilt their party, but Atletico's moments of glory had to play second fiddle to the fantastic atmosphere that the Kerala fans created throughout the game. The sight of the entire stadium flashing their mobile torch lights was a treat to the eye and it gave a glimpse of how fans of Kerala had warmed up to the sport, the league and most importantly, their team.
If there were people still finding a reason why Kochi was awarded the final, the showpiece event in itself was an apt answer.
Taking nothing away from the spirited turnaround by the Blasters this season, it is their fans who have once again put Kerala among Indian football's elite. Their constant show of support which led to packed houses every time the Blasters played at home hasn't gone unnoticed and there will be very few teams which would claim to have more vociferous support than the Blasters.
So now that the ISL is over, what happens to the passion, the zeal and the energy in the state?
With the Blasters now not returning to the field for another ten months, it gives the franchise the right amount of time to further strengthen their relationship with the people of Kerala and give something back for the unconditional support they gave to their team.
A state which was once known for providing gems like IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Anchery, NP Pradeep for the national team, have struggled to match their own legacy in recent years. While the likes of CK Vineeth, Anas Edathodika and Rino Anto have been on the fringes in the national side, neither has managed to get a foothold in the side yet.
The dissolution of Chirag United in 2012 meant Kerala haven't had participation in the I-League for four years. This lack of platform, in addition to either closure or diminishing prominence of national level tournaments like the Durand Cup, Rovers Cup and the IFA Shield have left football clubs with very few tournaments to play in. With hardly any tournaments, clubs are struggling to keep players on the payroll for the entire year.
This scenario is adverse in the state of Kerala where only the Blasters participate in a national level league.
"In our time there used to be so many tournaments. We (Kerala Police) used to participate in so many local and national tournaments throughout the year that we didn't have enough time. But now we have seen that so many of these tournaments have closed down. There are no teams from Kerala in the I-League, so where will our players play? With so few competitions, how will clubs from Kerala pay their players? They can't afford to keep them for the entire year," Vijayan, the greatest footballer to have emerged out of the state, told Firstpost.
The legendary striker who made 79 appearances for India, stressed the importance of local tournaments in throwing up talented players. "When I played, so many players came up from the local tournaments here. Now we don't have the same number of tournaments happening, so how will we find good players? How many players can play in the I-League and the ISL? Not many. I'm sure there are several players in the state who are good enough to play in the ISL, but they don't have a platform to showcase their talent," Vijayan said.
The 47-year-old also lamented Kerala Blasters' lack of intent in channelising the local talent as a reason Kerala may struggle to produce top players in the time to come. "It's good to see the Blasters reach the final. They have a very good team. There are also some very good players from Kerala in the side, but they are all established players. No new and young players have been given opportunity to play. So how will football in Kerala prosper?" the former Indian striker questioned.
He was also quick to point out the policy adopted by NorthEast United who have given their younger players a chance to play in the ISL and gain much needed exposure. "If you take a look at NorthEast United, you will see 18-year-old players from that region playing for the team. So there is no surprise that teams from the North East are winning the Santosh Trophy, while Kerala is even struggling to qualify for the final," Vijayan added.
The Kerala Football Association has sanctioned the launch 180 football academies across the state that will provide the young kids with the necessary coaching to develop their skills, but there are question marks over a possible outlet for young players. This is where the Blasters' role is crucial, for they are the solitary club from the state playing at the national level.
However, the club so far has shown little conviction in developing the game at the grassroots level. The six football schools that the Blasters have launched are managed by Prodigy Sports, their grassroots partner, an independent entity specialising in grassroots sports development.
"In terms of grassroots development, the management's approach is a bit shaky. They have outsourced their academies to Prodigy Sports. I feel they should run their own academy and most importantly, under their own name. You can see how much the people of Kerala love their team, so if the academy is under Kerala Blasters' name, it would be so much better," Pradeep, the chief scout of the Kerala Blasters told Firstpost.
Pradeep, who played 50 matches for India, disclosed that there wasn't a concrete plan in place after he was appointed to the post and the delay in allocating funds prevented the team from kick starting their scouting programmes. "I had shortlisted a few players, but it was way too late. I told the coach about these players, but by then he had no time to have a look at them. As of now, there is no intimation given to me by the club as to what is to be done next, so we will see if we can do something before the start of the next season," the former Mohun Bagan, Mahindra United and Viva Kerala player said.
The 33-year-old hinted at a lack of involvement on the management's part when it came to grassroots development. He felt the franchise have not spoken on that aspect and have vested the responsibilities of grassroots development on their partner Prodigy Sports. "There is no word or dialogue from the club about developing the game at the grassroots level. They have handed that responsibility to Prodigy who look after that aspect. I feel there should be a bit more effort from the management to understand the football here and be more involved," Pradeep added.
The chief scout of the Blasters also highlighted endeavours undertaken by some other ISL franchises, who have sent their youth teams abroad to receive training and play against stronger teams over there. "Delhi Dynamos have done a great job with their youth team. They have sent their team abroad to get better training and play against stronger teams there. It's a very good initiative. If you look at Bengaluru FC, they provide their youth teams with similar facilities. These things help a great deal in developing young players," Pradeep told Firstpost.
During the season, Blasters' coach Steve Coppell was among the few who were vocal about the need for the franchises to work on developing the game at the grassroots level. It is surprising how his words have gone unnoticed among the members of the club's management. Before signing off after the ISL final, Coppell once again stressed that the Blasters have a role to play in churning out talents from the state and he hoped that the club strives for success on that front as well. "I think it (grassroots development) is not just the responsibility of the club, but also the state, and the Blasters certainly have a role to play. I don't know who is more responsible for providing the kids with the right facilities, apart from the football team here, I really don't know the politics. But club have a role to play and they accept it. Hopefully, in the years to come, they will be able to make inroads in that direction," the English coach expressed as he ended his stint with the Blasters.
Ahead of the final, there were reports in the media that the legendary Vijayan had to go to Blasters' opponents Atletico de Kolkata for tickets as the organisers had given him two tickets to only the general stand, according to a report in the Hindustan Times. Such disregard to a Kerala and national football icon, further adds strength to Pradeep's claims of a lack of involvement among the club hierarchy when it comes to local football.
As far as football in Kerala is concerned, the Blasters have brought with them a renewed hope of reviving the football in the state, and its football-crazy people have provided them with plenty of encouragement with their dedicated support. So it is only fair that the club repays their love by putting a more formidable step forward in developing the game at the grassroots level in Kerala.
Clubs have come and gone in Kerala's football history and all have failed to translate the passionate support into a football superpower in the country. "The people of Kerala just love football. Some of the supporters have been around since the days of FC Cochin and Viva Kerala. Today they support the Blasters with equal zest. Our state and clubs have always lacked a strong management because of which they have failed to attract a lot of investments. That's been a problem in Kerala." Subin Mathews, the founder of Kerala Blasters' Manjappada Fan Club told Firstpost.
The Kerala fans now have their hopes pinned on the Blasters to realise the state's true football potential, but considering the club is yet to take steps in that direction, one fears the same old problems would resurface for the state. While the Blasters are not in the danger of shutting down, their lack of intent towards developing football in Kerala might be a case of another missed opportunity.
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