Gokulam Kerala FC's title-triumph in the I-league to become the first Kerala team to earn the honour is something to be talked about. For Kerala football this can be considered as a manna from heaven. Indeed, for a state where the passion for football is something to be seen to be believed, it was always a strange irony that it did not have a matching champion outfit at the national level till date. True, in the decades gone by there was the champion Kerala Police side, a team that brought to fore football greats like I M Vijayan, Sathyan, Papachan, Sharaf Ali and the prized lot and won tournaments all around the country. But I-league was a different ball game all together. An event that had long been monopolised by Kolkata and Goan clubs in the main with little to no teams from Kerala in the picture. This despite the following for the sport in the state.
It is doubtful if any other venue in India notwithstanding the high following in Kolkata and Goa, could evoke the kind of response for a game of football as in Kerala. Even a Sevens tournament is a big hit and when it comes to tournaments the stadiums, be it in Kozhikode, Kannur, Kochi, Thrissur or Thiruvananthapuram had to be seen with overflowing crowd, all knowledgeable fans who actively get involved with the proceeding with their cheers and jeers alike. A good player is a hero and the one who fouls becomes an instant target for special treatment from the masses. Everything happens but nothing untoward. Football is all about passion. As one who had been stationed in Kerala for some years as representative of a major national English newspaper, this writer had several delightful experiences in covering matches at various venues in the state. Be it the Nagjee in Kozhikode, easily the one event that even shocked and surprised me by the public response, the serpentine queues in particular before the then Corporation stadium or the Narayana Guru tournament in Kannur or the Chackola trophy in Thrissur, everything was an experience to be had! A major tournament generally ushers in a mela-like atmosphere and the fans in Kerala are never short in making it an event to remember year after year.
It was not that Kerala teams held sway for this kind of thronging supporters, Indeed, not until Kerala Police came into the scene in a big way. But the focus generally was on the Kolkata glamour sides_ Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. With a series of tournaments then all over Kerala it used to be an annual pilgrimage to the land of football for these big three with one thing assured everywhere_ a standing ovation. Invariably the winner would be from among them and that is an added icing to the cake. For sure for someone who had always believed it was cricket which provided the setting for hero-worship, Kerala made me witness what football could do. Someone like the great P K Banerjee would probably not have received the kind of adulation during his playing days as he had as coach for one of the Kolkata greats. The great man's love for Kerala manifested in his efforts to come up with a smattering of Malayalam to please his fans! Indeed, the football scenes in Kerala provided a sizable number of gems that remain cherished in memory.
And yet it had always been a question as to why the state could not throw up a team that would stand up to the challenges and carve a niche for itself. Kerala Police in the eighties and nineties held its own for a while, winning the Federation Cup and other major trophies aside from giving Indian football some class players. More recently Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League had caught the imagination of the football lovers and Indeed, the team was never without a grand support, with massive gathering assured for its matches in Kerala. Blasters did come close to clinching the title twice but lost out in the final hurdle. Since then the team's show if anything has been on the wane. It is here then that Gokulam's success has come as a tonic to inspire a generation of football talents of this state. Indeed, Kerala has never been short of talents but perhaps it was in moulding them into champion stuff that things were lacking. Maybe, just maybe Gokulam's success can provide a fresh insight on how long term planning could work out fruitfully.
As former player and top talent spotter C.M. Ranjith, who is closely associated with the Gokulam club as a key official looking after youth development, puts it, “the plan is to develop talents in every district with appropriate tie up with available facilities at each place. Besides the concept of a reserve eleven helps in developing players who could at some point of time slip into the main team. This is again part of the development programme.” Ecstatic with the great show of Gokulam, the former Tamil Nadu player and then Coach said the boys delivered when it was most needed. Gokulam had begun shakily in the league but as destiny would have it, the team went on to court success in the final analysis to open the gates of immense possibilities and promises that Kerala football as a whole could look for in the days and seasons to come. Talk of private enterprise showing the way and Gokulam has done it most magnificently.