Can Kerala Blasters help God’s own country rediscover football glory?
Six of eight ISL franchises are from regions that have teams in the first division of the I-League, a competition from where Kerala is conspicuous by its absence.football Updated: Dec 18, 2016 22:15 IST
Every time Steve Coppell pitches for a longer league, the Kerala Blasters coach perhaps strikes a chord with the team’s supporters. Because once the three-month Indian Super League (ISL) ends, Kerala stops being part of top-flight football in India. Six of eight ISL franchises are from regions that have teams in the first division of the I-League, a competition from where Kerala is conspicuous by its absence.
The kind of support Kerala Blasters has would be the envy of many teams around the world and it isn’t surprising that goalkeeper Sandip Nandy said he wanted to win the ISL for the fans. “As coach Coppell has pointed out, those 50-60,000 people at the stadium give us wings,” said Blasters’ striker CK Vineeth.
“People here had forgotten about football after Viva Kerala dropped from the top tier of the I-League and FC Kochin was disbanded. Kerala Blasters has done a lot to revive that interest,” said Babu Mather, vice-chairman of the All India Football Federation’s Disciplinary Committee. Mather was instrumental in setting up FC Kochin which meteored to the top echelons of the game in India in the late 90s before being disbanded in the early Noughties.
“Over the past three years, schools have begun taking a lot of interest in football and dozens of academies have come up. And it’s all because Kerala Blasters has managed to attract football fans back to the arena,” said Mather.
“They (the Blasters fans) create an atmosphere comparable to what you see in Europe or South America. It (the ISL) is a huge event in Kerala, one which the local community has embraced. That has happened because a lot of effort has been made in engaging the fans,” said Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa Development Officer South and Central Asia, over the phone from New Delhi.
Mather said the time is ripe to give the fledgling professional league in Kerala a boost. That could help revive football in the state where seven-a-side tournaments are still popular especially in the Malabar region. “Earlier, there used to be a lot of players from Kerala in the national team, now there are only one or two. I think Blasters will help Kerala on the national scene but we also need our local clubs back,” said Vineeth.
Prabhakaran too spoke about the need for local club rivalries before you could think of a return to the days when IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Anchery, CV Pappachan and VP Sathyan were some of the sport’s brightest stars. “In 80% of the 14 districts, there is little or no organised football,” said Prabhakaran.
The Blasters have created a massive impact but in the absence of a longer league, sustainability could be a problem, said Prabhakaran. “You need to have a connection with your fans for 365 days, not lose them for nine months in a year.”