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Kochi kicks up football frenzy

M.P. Praveen
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Three decades ago when the city hosted the Nehru Gold Cup, it just had one pitch to offer at the Maharajas College Ground for world class footballers to regale spectators.

The spectators, a few thousands of them and no less passionate than the modern day fans fed on English Premier League and La Liga, crammed themselves into makeshift bamboo galleries that swung every time the fans worked themselves to a frenzy.

Reghu, a grey-haired government officer, who was in his teens in 1983, still recollects having seen the magic weaved by Ihor Belanov, the Soviet Union player who went on to stamp his mark in the World Cup held three years later with four goals and won the European Footballer of the year by virtue of his performance in Dynamo Kyiv’s Cup Winners’ Cup trophy, from those shaky galleries.

“No one was bothered about the facilities then. They were simply happy to watch world class players in action,” he said.

From the peak of popularity, football fell to rather hard times in the city since then, ceding ground to cricket.

So, when the referee blows the whistle and Indians and Palestinians fight for glory in the one off international match at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium on Wednesday, committed fans like Reghu will hope for a revival in the fortunes of the game in the city, which once had the distinction of being a nursery of Indian football. Among the marquee names to have furthered the city’s fame on a football pitch was C.C. Jacob, who featured in the Asian All Star Eleven.

The city had the first professional football club of the country in the form of FC Cochin in the late 90s followed by teams like Viva Kerala and Chirag United. As none of those teams managed to stand the test of time, the city was left without a team of its own depriving the home fans of any I-League matches.

In a way, Wednesday’s match can be construed as a harbinger of good times for football with the city also hosting Santosh Trophy next week.

However, there are apprehensions that the delayed launch of ticket sales and restricting the sale to selected branches of Federal Bank in the city will douse the spirit. “We were left with very little time for making arrangements, including printing of tickets, as the match was announced quite late,” said K.M.I. Mather, president, Kerala Football Association.

While ticket counters at the stadium will remain open from 10 a.m. till half-an-hour in to the match scheduled for 6.30 p.m., it remains to be seen how far it will be able to attract football fans from other parts of the State, especially Malabar. Gates will be opened to the spectators at 3.30 p.m.

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