It was a sea of yellow at Kochi in the opening match of the sixth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) between Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) that took place on October 20. The commentators, looking at the 60,000-odd crowd that had assembled inside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, described the atmosphere as “electric" — a sight rarely seen at football venues in the country. The fan club of the Kerala Blasters call themselves Manjappada — the yellow army was instrumental in filling up the stadium. The fan group was able to coordinate and bring fans to the venue in 41 buses, a feat none of the other fan clubs in ISL have been able to manage so far.
Safuvan KM, who was the president of Manjappada until a year ago, is now a working committee member, and part of a core group of volunteers tasked with decision making. Safuvan at the moment is arranging buses, coordinating between fans turned volunteers from across the state, country and even from across the world. He is getting the buses ready to take the fans for the Kerala Blasters vs Bengaluru FC face-off on November 23.
"Their fan base is our arch-rivals," states the civil engineer who moved from Malappuram to Ernakulam for work just so that he could watch the Kerala Blasters play at their home ground."My father doesn't like the fact that I am football crazy, it had become an issue at home. After a match, I would reach home at perhaps 2 or 3 in the morning and that would anger my father. So I took a small project here in Ernakulam for the next six months so no one at home will know what I am up to," adds this fan.
For Safuvan, Manjappada is not just a club of football fans of Kerala Blasters and the Indian football team, but a place where friendships and relationships are forged. "I have been with the fan club for three years now, I value the bonding between the fans, which I feel is the most important, that's the advantage. Wherever we go, there are people who will hear our call. Even if it's a hospital case, there will be someone for you, even for a family marriage they make enquiries through us and I was the president last year. People would reach out for help and we would reach out to them for help too," he adds.
Manjappada started its Facebook page in 2014 with just three founders. At present, the group has over 3 lakh followers on Facebook alone, another 1.69 lakh on Instagram. ”We have overcome our arch-rivals ....the Bengaluru FC in fan base size," states Somu Joseph, a state core member of Manjappada, and a corporate employee turned entrepreneur. Manjappada’s job is to coordinate and bring the fans together under one umbrella. In fact for the opening match of this’s year ISL, 41 buses came from across Kerala to Kochi,” he added.
In 2017, Manjappada started getting organised, and expanded into a WhatsApp group consisting of 50 members initially. Over time, there were WhatsApp groups for each of the 14 districts, then came the state chapters across India. Keralites, from over 44 countries are active members in the international groups, claim these fans.
The fan group functions akin to the Indian parliament, selecting members who are active online and offline, promoting them to represent cities and districts. "We select people who are good leaders and make them into district core group, from these groups we have a global core group where we have representatives from all states that makes a total of 63 people. We work similar to the Indian parliament," explains Somu who adds that much like the Union cabinet, the Manjappada fan club has a working committee that makes strategies and takes decisions. "This helps us understand the pulse of the fans, and what the fans demand and want," he added.
Manjappada moved away from a presidential structure to a more democratic style of functioning this year. "All decisions had to be approved by one person, and this caused delays. Also, it was too much work for just one person," points out Safuvan, the last person to hold the title of president of Manjappada.
Manjappada is purely non-funded and runs on volunteer enthusiasm. The fan group has no funding but does get outside support from the Kerala Blasters Football Club, "The club supports us a lot, We got that big banner of "Rise Like a Phoenix" and without the club’s support, we would not have been able to unfurl it at the stadium. The club took permission from the league and spoke to the broadcasters. There is no funding from them," says Somu.
Manjappada makes it a point to ensure that the fans make it to the next match venue of the Kerala Blasters. I went to Hyderabad spending my own money for the match, I took a flight. I know fans who have travelled in general compartment and didn't even have money for food but went to the Hyderabad match. We have another match with Bengaluru FC and already we have a few buses that are getting filled and getting ready to go. We will be outnumbering the Bengaluru fans this time,” says a confident Somu.
When asked about why other fan clubs under the ISL have not been able to reach the same level as that of Manjappada, Safuvan responds by saying, "Other fan associations have not been able to scale up to our level due to the lack of unity among them. Among us, if there is a disagreement, we have sensible people who would intervene and prevent things from escalating.”
The Manjappada fan group wants to take over Bengaluru FC’s home ground Kanteerava and say they are open to the idea of a challenge from the Bengaluru FC fans.
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