M. P. Sakeer, Kerala's Footballer of the Year, is on his way to join Goa's Churchill Brothers. But he is hungry for bigger things
The obscure little room at Pathalam, a few miles from Kalamassery in Kochi, has no television. There's no telephone either. The room has been home to two of Kerala's finest footballers for virtually the last couple of weeks as they prepare for the Santosh Trophy, the National Championship which begins this week in Kolkata.
The two, Kerala's Footballer of the Year M. P. Sakeer and last year's best player Justin Stephen, had been taking a bike ride from their lodge to an old dwelling at Udyogamandal to watch the World Cup matches the last few nights.
The scene and situation sum up Indian football nicely: Plenty of talent but very few creative heads to market the game properly. Or give it a dash of glamour.
“Nobody will notice Sakeer if he walks around here,” says Justin, who played for top club Mahindra United of Mumbai last season. “Not many know who he is.”
Sakeer, the captain of Kerala's lone I-League side Viva Kerala last season, is a hot property in Indian football. A few weeks ago, some of the country's biggest clubs were fighting to rope in the creative midfielder with Goan giant Churchill Brothers finally winning the race with its huge offer.
“It is nearly six times more than what I was getting at Viva Kerala,” says the 23-year-old. “I'm told that it is the highest they have given to a player who is not in the national team.”
Surprisingly, till about two years ago, Sakeer had not even played for Kerala at any level. “I come from Areecode (in Malappuram), the Mecca of football, and I've been playing football almost all my life but I played for Kerala for the first time in the under-21 National championship,” says the youngster. “I was rather short when I was young and this did not help me in my junior years.”
Grabbed his chances
But Sakeer was quick to make a mark when he got the chance. He was with the State Bank of Travancore team for a year before joining Viva Kerala. He matured into a fine player during his two years with Viva, helping the Kochi-based team retain its place in the country's premier league.
“Sakeer is a good tactician,” says A.M. Sreedharan, the Viva Kerala coach. “And his move to Churchill will inspire others in our team to work harder and get big offers too.”
Sakeer is now dreaming a bigger dream.
“I'm thrilled about going to Goa…there are some four or five clubs which are among the best in the country, it will do wonders to my football,” says the young man, the youngest of nine children of a farmer.
“It will help me in realising my big dream…to play for the country some day. I am willing to work harder towards that goal.”
The World Cup has been a bit of a disappointment for Sakeer, for his favourite Brazil did not live up to expectations. But the performance of Asian giant Japan, which defeated Cameroon and Denmark and lost by a lone goal to the Netherlands, has offered him hope that India could also qualify for the Cup some day.
“If Japan can do it, we can do it too, provided we go for a massive overhaul,” says Sakeer, slipping into a dream world.
“The main problem is lack of good grounds. We have nearly 500 clubs in the country but very little infrastructure. And then, there's no proper practice, no proper coaching and very little foreign exposure,” says the smart midfielder.
“Nobody cares for Indian football. Look at the last I-League…the floodlights at the Kozhikode stadium were not working during a couple of matches and the games were postponed. The absence of quality tournaments too has hit the game hard. We have very few quality tournaments these days. And because there are very few elevens tournaments, players are flocking to sevens in places like Malappuram and Kozhikode.”
Sakker feels that things are looking up for the national team. “There is some change in the national team now but it's only after the foreign coach (Bob) Houghton came in.”
The scene in the State could turn worse once the Indian Premier League's Kochi team starts playing its cricket matches in Kerala, feels Sakeer.
“The IPL has got money, glamour and the crowds…it will hit Kerala football hard.”