With top class football returning to the state on February 6, and also by co-hosting the Santosh Trophy, can Kerala reclaim the lost glory and step up again to the Indian scene...It has almost been 9 years since Kerala last hosted a top class International match. March 31, 2004 to be very precise was the day when the Indian national team welcomed Oman in Kochi. It was quite another matter, altogether that they were given a footballing lesson in a 5-1 humbling, leaving them reeling in the 2006 World Cup Qualifier. Yet, all things said and done, India were ranked a creditable 134 then.
Fast forward 9 years, with promises of growth and development, the introduction of foreign coaches, the so called grassroots development and the establishment of numerous coaching academies, what we have to show for this all is a FIFA rank of 166, a 32 place drop. So how exactly did we make progress? Let us leave that as a question worth pondering.
Cue back to the topic at hand. People may often claim that Goa (with clubs from the coastal state having won all of the iterations of the I-League so far) and Bengal (the so called 'Mecca of football' as it is home to the two most widely supported clubs in Indian football, if not in Asia - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal) are the two states where football holds the most sway. Yet it can be said that footballing history in India is incomplete without any reference to the state of Kerala.
IM Vijayan is using his vast knowledge to help more youngsters become better footballers
In the recent past itself, Kerala has given Indian football stars such as IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, CV Pappachan and the effervescent VP Sathyan who captained the Indian national team to name a few. Turn back the pages of history and Kerala was also home to the legendary Abdul Rahman representing India gloriously in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, en route to the semi-finals, beating even the hosts in the process.
Some of the most well supported clubs came out of the coastal state of Kerala. While FC Kochin was the first professional club in the nation, Kerala Police of the 2000s dominated Indian football with Sathyan, Ancheri and Vijayan among its members as they clinched a remarkable double of the Indian Federation Cup in 1990 and 1991.
In fact it was also in 2004-05 when the Indian national team last played in the city of Kochi, that Kerala recorded their last victory in the Santosh Trophy. The five time winners are also co-hosting the Santosh Trophy this year, and although, it has become a much trivialized tournament, it will certainly be a good place to nurture the youngsters, especially with the massively popular 'Sevens' tournament in the state.
The last participant from the state in the country's top tier football league was Viva Kerala, or Chirag United Kerala, who were unceremeniously dumped out by finishing 12th in the 2011-12 season. However things are indeed looking better for the state as two clubs are to compete for promotion when they take part in the I-League second division, namely Eagles FC and Josco FC.
Diego Maradona in his element as Kerala gives him a huge welcome
In spite of the lack of teams in the top tier, that football is still the most popular and widely followed sport in the Southern state is beyond doubt, as evidenced by the massive euphoria when Diego Armando Maradona visited the city of Kannur, and was greeted by 50,000 fans at the Jawahar Municipal stadium. Oh wait! He had gone there to inaugrate a jewellery store and juggled the ball with local legend, Vijayan for five minutes!! And that attracted a full house!!
The lack of teams has also not stopped the development of home grown talent as the likes of NP Pradeep, Krishnan Ajayan and Mohammad Rafi have represented India in the recent past. The mantle has now been picked up by current Prayag United player, CK Vineeth who has had a fantastic season with the Kolkata based club, including a hattrick in his last match against Air India. This has earned him a call up in Wim Koevermans' squad for the Kochi friendly! What better way to debut for the national team than in your home town! Fellow local lad K. Asif too made the standby list for the Blue Tigers and is also probably a couple of displays away from a call up.
"Kerala has been a talent hub for Indian football. I have idolized Vijayan et al. I know that I will have to work very hard to reach their levels. I will also get the chance to play alongside Sunil Chhetri and other noted Indian footballers. It is a great honour for me and I would like to carry the baton forward"
While a crowd of 1,20,000 might turn up at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata, West Bengal whenever East Bengal take on eternal rivals, Mohun Bagan, the number actually came down to a shameful 2,000 when India last played a friendly against Malayasia at the same venue. In the place of I-League champions, Goa too, the same is prevalent where people are least bothered when the India team turns up.
CK Vineeth: "I am looking forward to don the Indian colours."
It is thus time for the forgotten state to rise up and be counted and show their peers that when it comes to supporting their national team, they are in fact miles ahead, even though they may not have an East Bengal or Dempo SC to call as their 'club'.
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