Monsoon football, Malappuram | Photo: Mathrubhumi/Satheesh Kumar KB
Football is always a sport that evokes rousing reception in Kerala. Just like how a leather sphere can tickle a child to action in Brazil, the land of football, as they say, a foray into football discussions or actual events can bring forth myriad emotions but mostly of joy and excitement. Some of the legends in Indian football have surfaced from this coastal state and that adds to the importance that this sport gets here. Above all, Malabar is the area for football, and there again, Malappuram is where perhaps one could encounter the true die-hard fans of football! Reams have been written on how football can openly trigger sporting divisions in a family when it is about choosing the favourites (team, player or both)! Have we not read of Brazilian and Argentinian supporters opening showing their preferences in Kerala's innermost areas either with flags and banners or even by painting their houses with the colour of their favourite team! World Cup is the time generally for the show of such universality of the sport of football, and it must be said Kerala stands foremost in the fans' show of enjoyment in the sport. It becomes a football festival.
Still, just as ironies never cease in sports, so too in Indian football. Why did the Santosh trophy national championship, in its 75th edition now, come to this football-loving state or be staged just 13 times (latest not included)? If that is strange, then why did Malappuram, where the passion for the sport or call it craze is considered the highest, get to organise it for the first time just now! Perhaps it had to do with the administration or even the kind of available infrastructure. But that is how it is! The two stadiums currently in use _ Manjeri Payyanaad stadium and Kottappadi stadium_ are believed to be not massive structures compared to ones of modern sporting times. Nonetheless, there is never a better sight even in these football settings than seeing a jostling crowd with spectators packed like sardines and serpentine queues outside the facility. Maybe this is the scene now in Malappuram though it is understood that much of the throng is reserved for the days when the Kerala team is in action. In some ways, not a surprise considering what Santosh Trophy has become now, from once the most sought after trophy in football to a mere annual ritual, nothing more, nothing less! Professional players are not in, and age restrictions are in place. As one writer in a leading English daily puts it, “it has become a youth event or a showcase for fresh talent looking to impress leading clubs.” Only old-timers would know how painful this transformation is.
It is not anybody's case that youth should not be given a forum to demonstrate their abilities. Indeed all top players of the country have come up the rungs on the hard way but should a symbol of supremacy in national football that Santosh Trophy has been, be diluted that way is the question. Do they do that to Ranji cricket? When the premise is that the best of the state is picked for what essentially is an inter-state competition, it has to be the 'best' and that should mean all of those who had shone in the league and ISL as well. To say that over-playing the players accentuates burnout is to sideline the issue. Player management is key to present times. Cricket does this with such aplomb. Should not other sports take the cue? There was a time when we had heard of just 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 looked forward to the programme. Cricket now is an all-year programme. And has all these affected players? It has generated more players, provided avenues for talents to showcase their wares and is it a surprise that every edition of IPL in its aftermath gives Indian cricket fresh talent to pick from. Cricketers are benefitted, and Indian cricket is enriched.
Perhaps football may not 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 by their sheer talent alone. There were opportunities for them to earn adulation and the general mass of fans to acknowledge their skills. To say the man in the stands of a stadium has had a role in someone like say I M. Vijayan or Pappachan or the late Sathyan to rise to what eventually each did is no misplaced statement. Veteran goalkeeper and a gem in his days, Brahmanand talked of how much he valued the ecstatic outpourings of the crowds whenever he came with a good show at various venues in Kerala. The Goan veteran acknowledges it is the passionate public who makes players like them known everywhere.
Maybe Malappuram will help revive those old times! But the task is to sustain this interest in the sport. Tournaments have become extinct and these are times for ISL and I-league. Football standards may improve, as some critics say, but do we get to hear of players in the same vein as some of the legends of even the recent past is a moot point. Those were the days when the refrain must have been 'Oh to be in Kerala when football is on!'