Richard Towa and his boys are sweating it out under a bright sun at the Malappuram District Sports Complex Stadium near the northern Kerala town of Manjeri on a Wednesday afternoon. With Gokulam Kerala’s first match in the I-League just three days away, the coach from Cameroon has to ensure everyone is in perfect shape.
The task at hand is not easy for Towa. It can’t be for anyone who takes charge of a club that has won the league two years in a row.
Gokulam’s opponent in the first match is Mohammedan Sporting, one of Kolkata’s three best-known clubs. It was after beating Sporting that Gokulam retained the I-League title last May.
That match was played in Kolkata. Bino George is based there now, as the assistant coach of ISL side East Bengal. He will be keeping an eye on Gokulam’s match against Sporting on Saturday. He was Gokulam’s first coach, and was the technical director when it won the I-League for the first time.
He vividly remembers the phone call he received six years ago from V. C. Praveen, the man whose passion for football gave birth to Gokulam, which, in turn, played a role in the revival of the beautiful game in Kerala.
“I was working as a coach with Kerala Sports Council at the time and Praveen asked me if I could meet him at his office in Chennai to discuss the possibilities of forming a new football club,” Bino tells The Hindu over the phone from Kolkata. “When I met him, I found that he loved football and I was very happy to take up the job as a coach. He gave me a free hand and I started looking out for the players. I managed to get a group of youngsters within the limited budget for the first year.”
Bucking the trend
Thus Gokulam Kerala was formed in 2017. It would have been tempting to dismiss it as yet another professional club from Kerala that was destined to fold up after promising the world, like FC Kochin or Viva Kerala. Both had played in India’s premier domestic tournaments but proved financially unsustainable. There were a few other clubs, like Quartz FC, that also found the going too tough.
But Gokulam offered hope. For, here was a team that didn’t depend on sponsorships or a consortium of several business groups for survival. It is owned by the Sree Gokulam group, which has a turnover of ₹8,000 crore. That its president is a football fan who also accompanies his talent scouts to Africa certainly helps.
“I know all the players of Gokulam and I watch all our matches,” says Praveen over the phone from Chennai. “I had been thinking of starting a football club in Kerala for a long time. I know the passion the State has for the game. My aim was to win the I-League within three years [of debuting in the tournament], but we did it a year later.”
When Gokulam did that, last year, it became the first football team from Kerala to win a league. For a State that has such a strong tradition in the sport, that title meant a lot. Kerala Blasters has definitely helped the State rediscover its love of football — the yellow army that fills the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi for the ISL matches proves that — but it is Gokulam that is more of a home-grown club, having unearthed several young talents, such as Emil Benny and Arjun Jayaraj.
The standard of Kerala football had slipped since the days of I.M. Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, C.V. Pappachan, U. Sharaf Ali and V.P. Sathyan. Most of them turned out for Kerala Police, which used to have a massive following. There was a time when an Indian squad had four or five players from Kerala.
Shot in the arm
The game’s revival got another shot in the arm when Kerala won the Santosh Trophy in May. Bino was the coach. The final against Bengal was staged in front of a full house of 28,000 at the stadium in Manjeri. The applause when Kerala scored the equaliser was incredibly loud — it was a case of hearing is believing.
The year also saw Gokulam retaining the Indian Women’s League and Kerala Blasters finishing runner-up in the ISL. Kerala football needs such significant successes to attract young kids to the football ground.
“Gokulam has contributed greatly to Kerala’s renewed interest in football,” says Bino. “And it was at the right time that the club made its debut in the I-League. Because of the success of Gokulam, you could see more clubs from Kerala [emerging] in the future. We have already seen Gokulam’s influence in women’s football. Look at a club like the newly formed Lord’s FA [which won the Kerala Women’s League, stunning Gokulam in the final].”
Praveen is glad that Gokulam could make a difference to football in Kerala. “Running a professional club is an expensive affair and I am not thinking of things like breaking even,” he says. “We have to spend something like ₹8 crore per year on the club. When I broached the idea of starting the club to my father-in-law, Gokulam Gopalan [the company’s founder and chairman], he advised me to be careful. He had been part of Viva Kerala.”
Praveen says the football team has helped in building the Gokulam group’s brand. The club’s next aim, he says, is to play in the ISL — by winning the I-League this season.
“I have always wanted Gokulam to play in the ISL by qualifying from the I-League,” Praveen says. “According to the AIFF’s roadmap, the champion of this season’s I-League is eligible for promotion to the ISL. Now they say that the I-League-winning team has to fulfil the licensing criteria. But we are not thinking about all that now. The aim is to win the I-League.”
Room for improvement
Praveen believes there is plenty of room for improvement in the conduct of Indian football. His team had to pay the penalty for inept administration as Gokulam was prevented from playing at the AFC Women’s Club Championship in Uzbekistan. Gokulam had already reached Tashkent, but had to return home as FIFA banned the AIFF for third-party interference in the governance of Indian football (the ban was since lifted, but Gokulam’s women missed out on their well-earned opportunity).
“For this season’s I-League, the schedule was announced just 11 days before the first match,” Praveen says. “But a new team has only recently taken over at the AIFF. So we have to give it time.”