After cheering up Kerala, Gokulam’s eyes take off

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The two-time defending I-League champion has played an important role in renewing the state’s interest in football. Another triumphant season could see him move to ISL

The two-time defending I-League champion has played an important role in renewing the state’s interest in football. Another triumphant season could see him move to ISL

Richard Towa and his boys sweat in the glorious sunshine at the sports complex stadium in Malappuram district near the town of Manjeri in north Kerala on a Wednesday afternoon. With Gokulam Kerala’s first I-League game three days away, the Cameroonian coach needs to make sure everyone is in top form.

The task at hand is not easy for Towa. It can’t be for anyone supporting a club that has won the league two years in a row.

Gokulam’s opponent in the first game is Mohammedan Sporting, one of the three best-known clubs in Kolkata. It was after beating Sporting that Gokulam retained the I-League title last May.

This match was played in Kolkata. Bino George is now based there, as the assistant coach of the East Bengal ISL team. He will keep an eye on Gokulam’s game against Sporting on Saturday. He was Gokulam’s first coach and was the technical director when he won the I-League for the first time.

He vividly remembers the phone call he received six years ago from VC Praveen, the man whose passion for football gave birth to Gokulam, who in turn played a part 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 said. The Hindu by telephone from Calcutta. “When I met him, I discovered that he loved football and I was very happy to take the coaching job. He gave me carte blanche and I started monitoring the players. J managed to get a group of young people within the limited budget for the first year.

Against the trend

Thus Gokulam Kerala was formed in 2017. It would have been tempting to dismiss it as yet another professional club in Kerala doomed to retreat after promising the world, like FC Kochin or Viva Kerala. Both had played in India’s major domestic tournaments but proved financially unsustainable. There were a few other clubs, like Quartz FC, who also found the situation too difficult.

But Gokulam offered hope. Because, here is a team that did not depend on sponsors or a consortium of several business groups for its survival. It is owned by Sree Gokulam Group, which has a turnover of ₹8,000 crore. That its president is a football fan who also accompanies its talent scouts to Africa certainly helps.

“I know all the Gokulam players and watch all of our games,” Praveen said over the phone from Chennai. “I have thought for a long time to start a football club in Kerala. I know the state’s passion for the game. My goal was to win the I-League in three years [of debuting in the tournament]but we did it a year later.

When Gokulam did this last year, it became the first Kerala football team to win a league. For a state with such a strong tradition in the sport, this title meant a lot. Kerala Blasters have certainly helped the state rediscover its love of football – the yellow army that fills the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi for ISL games proves that – but it is Gokulam that is more of a local club, having unearthed several young talents, such as Emil Benny and Arjun Jayaraj.

The level of Kerala football had slipped since the days of IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, CV Pappachan, U. Sharaf Ali and VP Sathyan. Most of them surrendered to the Kerala Police, which had a massive following. There was a time when an Indian team had four or five players from Kerala.

Shot in the arm

The revival of the game was given another shot when Kerala lifted the Santosh Trophy in May. Bino was the coach. The final against Bengal took place in front of a packed house of 28,000 spectators at Manjeri Stadium. The applause when Kerala scored the equalizer was incredibly loud – it was a case of hearing is believing.

The year also saw Gokulam retain the Indian Women’s League and the Kerala Blasters finishing second in the ISL. Kerala football needs such big hits to attract young kids to the football pitch.

“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 I-League debut. Due to the success of Gokulam, you might see more Kerala clubs [emerging] in the future. We have already seen Gokulam’s influence in women’s football. Look at a club like the new Lord’s FA [which won the Kerala Women’s League, stunning Gokulam in the final].”

Praveen is happy that Gokulam can make a difference in football in Kerala. “Running a professional club is an expensive business and I don’t think about things like breaking even,” he says. “We have to spend something like ₹8 crore a year on the club. When I proposed the idea of ​​creating the club to my father-in-law, Gokulam Gopalan [the company’s founder and chairman], he advised me to be careful. He was part of Viva Kerala.

Praveen says the football team helped build the Gokulam Group’s brand. The club’s next target, he says, is to play in the ISL – winning the I-League this season.

“I always wanted Gokulam to play in the ISL by qualifying for the I-League,” Praveen said. “According to the AIFF roadmap, this season’s I-League champion is eligible for promotion to ISL. Now they say the winning I-League team must meet the licensing criteria. But we don’t think about all that now. The goal is to win the I-League.

Room for improvement

Praveen thinks there is a lot of room for improvement in the conduct of Indian football. Her team had to pay the penalty for inept administration as Gokulam was barred from playing in the AFC Women’s Club Championship in Uzbekistan. Gokulam had already reached Tashkent, but had to return home as FIFA banned AIFF for third-party interference in Indian football governance (the ban has since been lifted, but Gokulam’s women missed their well-deserved opportunity ).

“For this season’s I-League, the schedule was announced just 11 days before the first game,” explains Praveen. “But a new team has only recently taken over at the AIFF. So you have to give him time. »

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