Rajesh M. Rajagopalan
It is not Virat Kohli’s glossy posters that adorn the walls of 8-year-old Abhinav’s bedroom – the space is claimed by Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Andres Iniesta and the likes. Growing up in a village in Malappuram of North Kerala, football runs in his blood and the recently acquired superstardom of Kerala based players like CK Vineeth has further fuelled his soccer ambitions.
One of the few places in India where football beats cricket in popularity, Malabar boasts of a soccer legacy that spans centuries. The game was the favourite pastime of British soldiers and missionaries. The spirit of soccer was passed onto the locals and it still remains their favourite.
“I wake up at 5.30 in the morning and go for a coaching session that lasts one hour. I love football, I watch sports channels the most, and want to become a player when I grow up” says the 8-year-old Abhinav, a representative of the new generation of football lovers.
Come summer and the small towns and villages in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur, Wayanad and Kasaragode wake up to soccer frenzy. It is a different kind of soccer called Sevens. There are only seven players in each team; the rules are different, the playing field is smaller and rigorous refereeing doesn’t kill the excitement of the game.
Sevens football is not officially approved even by the Kerala Football Association, let alone FIFA. Once, a Kerala based national player was debarred for playing Sevens. Some allege that the collection tournaments are conducted with sole monetary aims. Players are brought in from countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana and they collectively take home around Rs. 2 crores in a season. There are agents in Mumbai who bring in African players to Malabar.
The Sevens’ season starts in November and lasts till May. Every village has its share of clubs and their rivalry is famous. Every year, they vie for the memorial ever-rolling trophy and star players acquire the status of local legends.
“Sevens became popular in the region due to the lack of large grounds. For us, nothing can beat the charm of Sevens, not even European club football. These days most of the Sevens tournaments are held in flood-lit grounds” says Saju, a die-hard football fan.
There are many African players who fly to Kerala every year to play Sevens. It is rumoured that the biggies make as much as national level club footballers. The fans expect to experience the raw beauty of football, so the rules are mostly lenient. Unlike Elevens, the game lasts only one hour.
Love for food, football and music: this is a defining characteristic of Malabar. The region also takes pride in its very own football legends; Olympian Rahman, VP Sathyan and so forth. The Sait Nagjee All India Football Tournament, held since 1952, attracts large crowds from all over Kerala. To say that Malabar breathes, eats and sleeps football is an understatement.
The popularity of international football players is so high in Kerala that most of them are household names. It is evident from the fact that Maradona endorses a jewellery brand in Kerala. The Argentinean football icon had been to Kerala for the inauguration of the brand’s showroom as well.
The roaring success of Indian Super League has elevated the spirit of football to the next level. Sachin Tendulkar being at the helm of Kerala Blasters and the presence of international players has added to the sport’s glamour.
Mohammed Rafi and CK Vineeth, respectively from Kasaragode and Kannur districts, are the new poster boys of Kerala football, thanks to ISL. Their success inspires many youngsters to pursue professional football.
During the world cup football season, flex banners emerge in every nook and corner of Malappuram and Kerala, rooting for top teams like Brazil, Argentina, Germany. Movie theatres take live telecasts to the big screen, for the cheering crowds to celebrate football.
New football academies are sprouting up in Malabar to nurture budding talents. The Sports and Education Promotion Trust (SEPT), based in Kozhikode, has set up ‘football nurseries’ in 13 districts of Kerala.
“If everyone loves football like we do, the world will be a better place to live. That is my philosophy” says the Malappuram native Seid Mohammed. Seeing his conviction, we don’t feel like disagreeing.
For Malabar, Sevens is more than just football. Proceeds from most of the collection tournaments go to charity. The Khader-Ali Sevens Tournament of Perinthalmanna is a shining example, who provides financial assistance to the dependents of snake bite victims. The tournament is held in memory of Khader, a footballer who succumbed to snake bite and Mohammed Ali, who collapsed on the ground and died after a sevens match.
Football fans though have their share of worries too. Playing fields are becoming scarce due to real estate development and it is posing a threat to the sports culture. “Everyone wants to construct bigger houses and open grounds are disappearing fast” laments a tournament organizer. In a region that has prospered following the Gulf boom, land is much in demand.
Hooliganism is yet another threat to the beautiful game of football. During the ISL match in Kochi, fans had vandalised the stadium. Violence had been reported during Sevens matches too.
(The author is a copywriter based in Kerala)