Football is always a sport that gets an enthusiastic reception in Kerala. Much like the way a leather sphere can tickle a child into action in Brazil, the land of football, as they say, a foray into football talk or real life events can elicit a myriad of emotions, but mostly joy and excitement. Some of the legends of Indian football have appeared in this coastal state and this adds to the importance the sport is taking on here. Malabar is above all the football district, and there again, Malappuram, it is perhaps there that you could meet the real football fans! Much has been written about how football can openly trigger sporting divisions in a family when it comes to choosing favorites (team, player or both)! Haven’t we read of Brazilian and Argentinian fans showing their preferences in the more remote areas of Kerala, either with flags and banners or even painting their homes in the colors of their favorite team! The World Cup is usually an opportunity to show such universality of the sport of football, and it must be said that Kerala is at the forefront in the fans’ spectacle of enjoyment in the sport. It becomes a football festival.
Yet, just as ironies never cease in sport, so does Indian football. Why has the Santosh Trophy National Championship, now in its 75th edition, come to this football-loving state or has it only been held 13 times (last one not included)? If it is strange then why Malappuram where passion for sports or call it infatuation is considered the highest, could she organize it for the first time just now! Maybe it had to do with administration or even the type of infrastructure available. But it’s like that ! It is believed that the two stadiums currently in use _ Manjeri Payyanaad Stadium and Kottappadi Stadium _ are not massive structures compared to those in modern sports times. Nonetheless, there’s never a better sight, even in these football settings, than seeing crowds jostling with spectators packed in like sardines and serpentine queues outside the facility. Perhaps that is the scene now in Malappuram although it is understood that much of the crowd is reserved for days when the Kerala team are in action. In some ways it’s no surprise considering what the Santosh Trophy has become, from once football’s most sought-after trophy to just an annual ritual, nothing more, nothing less! Professional players are not present and age restrictions are in place. As a writer from a major English daily put it, “it’s become a youth event or a showcase for new talent looking to impress the big clubs.” Only the elders would know how painful this transformation is.
It is not the case for everyone that young people should not have a forum to demonstrate their abilities. Indeed, all the best players in the country have risen through the ranks the hard way, but the question is whether a symbol of domestic football supremacy that has been the Santosh Trophy should be diluted in this way. Do they do that at Ranji’s cricket? When the premise is that the best in the state is chosen for what is essentially an interstate competition, it must be the “best” and that should mean everyone who shone in the league and the ISL as well. To say that over-playing players accentuates burnout is to dismiss the question. Player management is key in the current era. Cricket does it with such aplomb. Shouldn’t other sports follow suit? There was a time when we only heard of Test cricket at the international level. So much has happened over the years. The sport itself has evolved, and today something like the IPL is the most anticipated program. Cricket is now a year round program. And have all these players been affected? It has generated more players, provided opportunities for talent to showcase their wares and it is surprising that each edition of the IPL that follows gives Indian cricket new talent to choose from. The cricketers are benefiting and Indian cricket is getting richer.
Maybe football doesn’t thrive that way but one thing that cannot be denied is that the legends that Kerala had produced in the sport did not become so just because of their talent. There were opportunities for them to gain adulation and the general mass of fans to recognize their skills. To say that the man in the stands of a stadium played a role in someone like say I Mr. Vijayan or Pappachan or the late Sathyan to achieve what each eventually did is not a misplaced statement. A veteran goalkeeper and a gem of his day, Brahmanand explained how he enjoyed the ecstatic outpourings of the crowds whenever he came with a good show to various venues in Kerala. The Goa veteran acknowledges that it’s the passionate public that makes players like them famous everywhere.
Perhaps Malappuram will help revive those ancient times! But the task is to maintain this interest in the sport. Tournaments are gone and these are times for ISL and I-league. The standards of football can improve, as some critics say, but whether we hear of players in the same vein as some of the legends of the recent past is a moot point. It was the time when the refrain had to be “Oh, to be in Kerala when the football is on!”