KOCHI: As the Kerala football team warmed up at the FACT Ground on Thursday, many of the players appeared to be just going through the motions. The spirit was missing. The moves were almost lifeless.
The National Games football competition begins in Guwahati on February 9 but these young men, virtually the Kerala team that played the Santosh Trophy in Haryana four months ago, will not be going to the Assamese city. Instead, they will be playing an exhibition match against Brazil's Sao Paulo FC in Kochi on February 7.
And, shockingly, Kerala will be sending its second string for the National Games.
"The Sao Paulo match is a high-profile game, so we've decided to field our best team, our Santosh Trophy players, for it," said the Kerala Football Association President K.M.I. Mather on Thursday afternoon. "And we want to develop a second string too. So, we will be sending a mix of former Santosh Trophy players and under-21 State stars to Guwahati. Our second string will not be able to handle Sao Paulo."
True, it will be nice to watch how our boys tackle the football magicians from Brazil. But the Sao Paulo match is just an exhibition game, a part of the countrywide five-match Super Soccer Series where different teams play against the Brazilian club.
The club thrashed East Bengal 3-0 in its opening game a few days ago at Siliguri and Mohammedan Sporting 6-0 in Jamshedpur on Wednesday. And with the Kochi match also expected to run on similar lines, it would have been wiser to have our second string play the Brazilians. Clearly, the KFA seems to have messed up its priorities. And the players have been given a raw deal.
The National Games has always been a prestigious event for Kerala. And the State Government normally sends huge contingents and offers rich rewards for its winners.
"When Kerala last won the National Games football title, in Bangalore in 1997, FC Kochin had sent its star players I.M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri by flight from Kolkata to Bangalore," said A.M. Sreedharan, the FC Kochin coach then.
K. Bharathan, the Kerala coach for the Sao Paulo game, was also the State coach for the Bangalore National Games. That victory, his first major triumph with the Kerala team, is still fresh on his mind. "We had a strong team and we beat Goa in the sudden-death in the final," said the seasoned coach.
"But now, I cannot comment on KFA's decisions. It is not proper too," said Bharathan after the team's coaching session this morning.
Some of the State senior players one spoke to sounded very unhappy. They were bitter but appeared helpless.
Kerala does not have a team in the premier National Football League. And after failing to cross the semifinal hurdle at the Santosh Trophy, the National Games offered a nice opportunity to redeem some lost ground in inter-State competitions.
Meanwhile, the State National Games team was beaten 1-0 by Thiruvananthapuram's State Bank of Travancore, which was without seven of its stars they are in Kochi camp for the Sao Paulo game - on Wednesday.
"If we feel that the Games team needs to be strengthened, we may send some of our players to Guwahati after the Sao Paulo game," said Mr. Mather.
But with the two events virtually clashing, will the players not run into time trouble. In that case, who will bear the flight expenses?
"The National Games is the responsibility of the Government. It will have to find a way," said the KFA chief.