BY NISANTH V EASWAR Follow @Niktheblue94 on Twitter
Kerala football was losing its battle for representation at India's top-tier football league. I-League saw Viva Kerala dissolve into pitiful nothingness in 2012 as ardent football lovers across the state were left without a team to support.
Enter Kerala Blasters as an Indian Super League team in 2014. The fans flocked to the stadium in large numbers and the club quickly booked a place in the hearts of Keralites. But a team in the top division remained a distant dream, until VC Praveen, son-in-law of popular business mastermind Gokulam Gopalan, pitched in with an idea to realize one of his audacious dreams.
And thus, Gokulam Kerala FC came into existence. A year after its foundation was laid and an engaging debut season in I-League that saw them finish seventh on the table under the tutelage of head coach Bino George, Goal spoke to club president VC Praveen for an exclusive interview.
Q : How challenging was it to get Gokulam Kerala to where the club is now?
Personally, football has been my passion right from the school days. I have represented my school and college teams. I knew about football before I knew about anything else.
My father was running a lodging house in Chennai. It was close to the football stadium. So any team from Kerala who comes to Chennai, they stay in our hotel. Mr Olympian Rahman from Calicut was a family friend. From his playing days, he used to be my father's very good friend. Thereafter, whenever any Kerala team visits, even if they are given five-star facilities, they will say they want to be in 'Kerala'.
Even when players get injured, they come to Chennai for treatment, including Sathyan, CC Jacob, they may stay for weeks or months. They felt home because we prepare homely food for them, we watch World Cup matches together.
This project has been in mind for a long time. Only thing was, it came up a little late. My father-in-law was part of Viva Kerala and then it was too early for me to get involved so when they were breaking down and dissolving, the offer was given to him. He was in a way, shy from taking that responsibility. Now, with ISL becoming a big success and I-League also being telecast last year with Ten Sports, the popularity was increasing.
Then KPL (Kerala Premier League) was discussed in a big way and then I thought why not go mainstream. Otherwise, the players won't have a commitment as such. One player who plays here will go next year, there is no point in nurturing them. It is because they don't have job opportunities. You guarantee them a job for life, then they will stick to it a team.
For Viva Kerala or any other private club, the issue is that it comes out of a group of people. Here, it is from one company. So you take a decision, you implement it. Otherwise every year, the fund sourcing and everything will be a problem.
We started with Kerala Premier League and after that, I-League opening came for two teams. So slowly, I told him we should not miss that. Instead of getting from step 1 to step 10, we are getting a chance to take a big jump straightaway.
AIFF was also very supportive. Seeing Kerala's passion for football and ISL's success plus a lack of a team from Kerala (in I-League), they were very interested in giving an opportunity.
From getting four points from nine matches, to where we are now is a remarkable achievement.
When we started off, we said we should be in the top-four. The coach and I were dreaming of being a winner or a runner-up. Nobody will believe it but we had a team for that then. Unfortunately, things went wrong. Now we have to dream for the next season.
Q: How difficult is it to combine the business and the football at Gokulam Kerala?
As far as football in India is concerned, I don't think anybody will make money. Even if the crowds are filling up the stadium, I don't think any of the franchisees are making a profit. It is not about profit at all, it is just passion for the game.
With proper academy and grassroots level proper planning, every year the revenue will improve. In India, it is possible but we have to do it the right way. Being a businessman, I am confident that I can turn the tables and make it a profitable venture in 3-5 years.
Q: What is your take on the low attendance in Calicut despite good results later on in the season?
The time factor is the main thing. When we went to Shillong for the match, it was at 8 PM. People there had no idea how the match was scheduled for an 8 PM kickoff. Nobody walks out after 7 PM!
We played at Aizawl at 2 PM, there was no crowd there too. It was Aizawl's last match and it was a holiday for them. We expected a full house. Hardly thousands were there.
Q: Did you consider making a complaint to AIFF?
No, we have to think of both sides. Getting a visibility through Star Sports is a huge thing. You have the match at 5:30 and you get a channel where the quality is so bad, it doesn't make sense. Next year they may come back with better timings.
I don't think we can really complain about the timings. Or we should have taken a decision. AIFF had told us there won't be a telecast but we can take the 5 PM slot if we are particular about it. The same offer would have gone to all the clubs, nobody took it. Everyone thought that the sponsors should be happy.
Through star sports, people all over the world are watching us. We have been getting calls from the Middle East, telling us the game was good. Everything does not happen in a day, it is a good beginning.
Q: For a club that just entered I-League, you don't know whether you will still be in the top division next season...
The merging is going to be a tough part. Every league you have 18-20 teams, why should that be 10-12 teams in India? You go for 18-20 teams.
In every league, the money investment is more at the top 3-4 teams. The rest of them depend on their academy and all. And they give a good fight to the top teams. So I don't know why Indian football is hesitant about the 18-20 team league.
The playing level should even for everybody. It should not be like two Kolkata teams can come on board. That doesn't make sense. You make it an 18-20 team league and let all the teams play. And somewhere down the lane, clubs will go out if they can't meet the standards. The teams will get relegated.
We would be interested in a merger. But price should be fixed for everything. Here, nobody makes money from football. They should generate the money from somewhere else, not from club owners.
Q: The Malabar region is popular for Sevens football and some players would be tempted to take part in those local tournaments to make extra money...
Some of the players don't have belief in them. They want to be in the playing XI. When they are not there, they are looking for an opportunity to impress. It is not that Rs 3000 or 5000 that they get in the match, they want to play. Finally, when they are not able to play, they go and play sevens because they want to be in the field.
Once you start giving results and you give quality football, then both the crowd and players will be attracted.
Q: How important is Bino George to Gokulam Kerala?
Bino is one person who is very passionate about football and the best part of him is that he knows Kerala football for the next 5-10 years.
He will say that there is an 18-year-old guy is there, a 10-year-old guy is there who is talented and he will say the boy will become much more talented than Arjun.He can say that about 10-year-old boys. He follows Kerala football like that. He knows the Kolkata, Northeast talents. For him, football is life. For him, football is wife!
Even when we were losing, some of them said we were playing well. Some of them suggested changing the coach as well. But it doesn't matter who the coach is if you don't have the players to fire the goals, no use of blaming him. I know this fellow is a passionate guy.
Once we started having results, they started appreciating the coach. Now they have seen Arjun Jayaraj, Irshad, Rashid, Salman, all of them coming up. We will have more of Arjuns coming up.
He is that passionate about football. We were lucky to get him. His connections across the world helped us get very good foreign replacements. Three of the new recruits are now the best in I-League. He is dedicated and a hardworking guy.
Q: What would be Bino George's role going forward?
Being the first year, I just wanted to have a feel of what it is. Slowly, I will have to take a backseat. The academies are coming up, they are going to be the future of Gokulam Kerala. So Bino should spend more time with that. So he can be the technical director, consultant or even probably the CEO of the club - whichever role he is comfortable with. He can decide what he wants to do.
Q: How much of a challenge was the presence of Kerala Blasters when Gokulam Kerala started?
In ISL personally, no enmity towards them, the quality of football is coming down. Probably the players who are coming are between the age group of 30-35, past their prime in their respective countries. It is more of entertainment, Star has marketed it very well.
ISL has brought the interest in football back. Football is the more popular game around the world and this will help us bring in a lot of academies. In future, football can be on par with cricket. Even nationally, they are doing well. Due respect should be given to I-League and ISL for that.
Q: Where do you see Gokulam Kerala in the next 5-10 years?
We want to be the best club in India. We want to be the champion club.
We have started academies to give chances to players and we even have people from the Middle East asking if they can start academies in our name. We have requested the sports council for the Manjeri stadium as our home ground. We have asked them for a lease saying that we will maintain it and give more technical advice to the sports council student over there also. We might have a good news very soon, we are positive about it.