Kerala’s love for soccer belies developmental shortcomings

Every four years Kerala embraces the football World Cup at fever pitch. The global showpiece event in Qatar that will kick off on Sunday is no different. Notwithstanding the passion for the game, the grassroots development needs a rehaul with the State no longer a nursery for producing national players

Updated - November 23, 2022 07:48 pm IST

Published - November 17, 2022 06:18 pm IST - KOCHI 

Wearing jerseys of their favorite teams, youngsters  taking out a country boat ride in the Kadalundipuzha at Anakkayam, near Malappuram, on Thursday,  heralding the FIFA World Cup beginning in Qatar on Sunday.

Wearing jerseys of their favorite teams, youngsters taking out a country boat ride in the Kadalundipuzha at Anakkayam, near Malappuram, on Thursday, heralding the FIFA World Cup beginning in Qatar on Sunday. | Photo Credit: Sakeer Hussain

Six-year-old Radhin Renish is a Cristiano Ronaldo fan and, hence, supports Portugal in this World Cup to be held in Qatar 

Reeling off the names of the players from goalkeepers to strikers to validate the quality of the Portugal side, Radhin, however, does not give them any realistic chance but picks Brazil, Argentina, and France as favourites. His video analysis of the eight groups in this World Cup belying his age has since gone viral on social media. 

The World Cup frenzy has touched a feverish pitch and it is hardly more visible than in the many alleys of the State marked by mammoth cutouts of star players. Pullavoor, a village in Kozhikode, drew global attention, after FIFA, football’s international governing body, tweeted a picture of the towering cutouts of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Ronaldo in the middle of a river to show how “World Cup fever has hit Kerala”. 

The Football Lovers’ Association in Malappuram has a tradition since the 2014 World Cup to stage an imaginary final between Argentina and Brazil, between teams clad in their iconic national jerseys. This year was no exception as Brazil emerged ‘world champions’ pipping Argentina 4-2. 

“It has now become a regular feature to usher in the World Cup season and galvanise the fans of two teams with the greatest following in Kerala. Also, it is a reflection of the fans’ desire for a dream World Cup final that has not materialised,” says Shaukat Uppoodan, convener of the association.  

Football fans in Kerala may be following European leagues and Champions League but when it comes to World Cup they are mostly split between the Latin American giants, Argentina and Brazil. No European side comes anywhere close. 

Experts feel this could also be the World Cup with the biggest following among young fans such as Radhin — thanks to their exposure to international leagues and players through television and social media platforms.

“These youngsters have amazing football knowledge and this could translate into greater following among that segment for this World Cup,” feels football analyst K.K. Shajeendran. 

It is also the time when fans associations rival to outdo each other. The Malappuram Argentina Fans WhatsApp collective is set to turn this World Cup season into a month-long fans’ fest. There will be a giant screen of 500 sq ft to screen the matches, a football tournament, exhibition, food court, children’ entertainment zone, and cultural programmes with celebrities dropping in, says Salih Malappuram, admin of the collective. 

Incidentally, big screens seem to have become the norm. One of the biggest screens to be set up at a school ground at Perinthalmanna will screen the games for free for an audience of 6,500. 

The excitement over the World Cup and the home matches of the Indian Super League (ISL) side Kerala Blasters is proof enough of Keralites’ love for the game. 

But that hardly converts into achievement on the pitch for a State which once used to be a conveyor belt of talent for the national side. “At any point, there used to be at least three or four Kerala players in Indian team. It seems like our passion for the game off the pitch is missing on the pitch,” says former India international I.M. Vijayan. 

Absence of grounds and infrastructure is being cited as one of the major reasons ailing the game. For instance, Malappuram, known for its football madness, did not host Santosh Trophy till last year for want of a proper stadium. While artificial turfs have mushroomed across the State, purists have anything but scorn for them blaming them for reduced emphasis on stamina and greater vulnerability of players to injuries.  

“I remember hunting for grounds to play the game in Kannur after my school days. It is to ensure that the future generations are spared of such hardship that I have set out to start football academies with the necessary infrastructure across the State,” says C.K. Vineeth, who has played for India and for ISL and I-League sides. 

The plan is to set up 70 academies, five each in the 14 districts, with at least two coaches each for grooming talents in different age groups. Besides, the proposed ‘The Thirteenth Foundation’, in association with actor Mammootty’s Care and Share International Foundation, aims at setting up world class infrastructure for sports and games. 

Kerala Blasters FC has also set up an academy for different age groups with an intake of about 30 for each batch. “All our academy players will have equal opportunity to play for the senior team in the ISL if they stay focussed and are good enough. With the advent of the ISL, there is increased realisation that football can be a carrier option that reflects in increased enthusiasm,” says Rizwan A.K., director of the academy and the women’s team. 

Besides, there are 10 residential academies affiliated to the Kerala Football Association (KFA) and numerous others, including those run by European football giants. 

Rufus D’Souza, who has been training children in Fort Kochi since 1952, laments football coaching has become way too business-minded. “We need good quality coaches at the grassroots level and global exposure for our Under-17 and Under-20 sides for restoring Kerala football back to its pedestal,” he says. 

Victor Manjila, the legendary goalkeeper who played for trophy-winning Indian and Kerala sides besides for the immensely popular club from the yesteryear Premier Tyres, cites the demise of departmental teams and tournaments for the rut in the game and the diminished popularity of players. 

“In our time, there were 10-12 departmental teams such as Titanium, Keltron, Cochin Port Trust and around eight annual tournaments, including Seth Nagji, Chakolas Gold Cup, Nehru Cup, etc. They not only offered the opportunity to play but provided job security to players. The ISL holds out the promise of a secure future to a much smaller pool of players in comparison,” he says. 

Sevens football seems to have filled that gap to a great extent and put money in the pockets of players desperate to make a living. 

“Sevens gave many players their first opportunity to wear boots, jersey and perform before a crowd. I repaired the toilet at my house and fixed the gate using the money I earned from playing Sevens in the 80s,” says U. Abdul Karim, who retired as Malappuram Police Chief last year. 

The Sevens Football Association dismisses the criticism levelled at Sevens as the rant by those unable to organise games. “Sevens is also football after all. We organise on an average 50 tournaments across the State in a year. The revenue we generate also goes into the development of football, academies, and even charity causes,” says Mohammed Ashraf, general secretary of the association. 

Football in Kerala started losing its sheen in the 2000s and the generations since then did not have a local team to root for unlike the previous generations. “There may yet be a revival of Kerala football inspired by Kerala Blasters though it may not be swift with even places such as Uttar Pradesh not known as a football powerhouse throwing up talents. Also, we need to stop overhyping budding talents on social media platforms,” says Nevin Thomas, founder of football-based YouTube channel Kalpanthu. 

The KFA claims that Kerala football is in a transitional state in its journey to turn the game professional, modelled on European leagues, and calls for patience.

“The Kerala Premier League alone has grown from a mere eight teams to 22 teams and the number of games has also increased accordingly. We have also proposed a Kerala Super League along the lines of the ISL with eight franchises in eight cities at an initial investment of ₹150 crore, for which investors have been identified. The idea is to develop a sustainable model for the holistic growth of the game from infrastructure to training facilities,” says Anilkumar P., KFA secretary. 

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.