Why is Kerala a Powerhouse
of Indian Football?

Author Biswajit Talukdar

In the second most populated country in the world, where cricket is the biggest sport and treated like a religion, you will find Kerala to be the home of Indian football. A wide range of sports are played in the state, but the most popular one is football and it is “oxygen” to many in the region.  Let’s take a look at how they got here and why they have become a powerhouse for the sport in the nation.

Rewinding to the pre-independence period, the British brought football to Kerala via the British officers of the Malabar Special Police (MSP). MSP was camped in Malappuram in the northern part of Kerala (Malabar region) and the natives began to adopt the game. The region is now crazy for football, with even the specially challenged people playing it in Northern Kerala while the blind come to football stadiums to hear and experience the thrill of the beautiful game.

Golden Years

Kerala enjoyed a golden era starting from the late 1980s to the 1990s when Indian football greats Vijayan and Ancheris wove their magic. They made it to seven consecutive finals of the Santosh Trophy from 1988 to 1994 and won it twice. Moreover, Kerala Police won the Federation Cup twice and FC Kochin lifted the Durand Cup, which brought more prestige to the southern state during that period.

The downfall and the revival – the love for football never really died.

Kerala’s football had a spectacular fall from grace soon after, however, as departmental teams such as Kerala Police and KSRTC were on the wane. FC Kochin, the country’s first professional club dissolved, and later, Chirag United followed them, which left Kerala with no team in the national league, but things were going to change big time soon.

The arrival of The Blasters

The arrival of Kerala Blasters Football Club filled the void left by FC Kochin and Chirag United. The Blasters were established in 2014 in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League as one of the founding members of the league. They managed to drive up and sustain fans’ interest while giving chances to local talents to some extent.

Gokulam’s emergence

From having nothing at a point, Kerala would soon have two clubs on the national stage, with Gokulam Kerala being formed in 2017. Gokulam shot to prevalence when the club lifted the 2019 Durand Cup by beating Mohun Bagan in the final at Kolkata.

Since then, Gokulam FC, also known as “The Malabarians” have won the I-League title twice and they were also crowned champions of the Women’s League twice. They are now the only Indian club in history to win back-to-back men’s and women’s national leagues.

 Santosh Trophy success

Piggybacking off of all this success at the club level, Kerala’s state football team also grabbed headlines for all the right reasons as they won the most recent edition of the Santosh Trophy. The 75th edition of the competition was held in Kerala, where the hosts defeated heavyweights West Bengal in the final.

The success for Kerala on and off the pitch is great to see, with a football crazy populous filling the stands for almost every game. Meanwhile, thousands of spectators followed the streaming of the tournament online as well.

 The Fans

The fans have played a big part in getting the state to where it is at this point. In 2014, when AIFF, Reliance, IMG, and Star Sports joined hands to start a new football league in India, Kerala was always going to land one of the teams thanks to the massive fanbase out there. Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar winning the rights to the franchise ended up being an added boost as well.

So far in the Indian Super League, the team unsurprisingly posts the highest average attendance. The Manjappada which means “Yellow Army” is the largest active fan group of the Blasters and they have played a huge role in unifying all the Blasters fans. They have branches in every district of Kerala and are also moving further along to 12 more states. The group has members in 64 countries around the world which includes the Gulf, the US, and the UK to name a few.

Veteran sports commentator Shaiju Damodaran’s energetic Malayalam commentary further enhances the watching experience in households and keeps fans engaged at all times.

 The special mentions

Diving deep into the state’s football culture, it all starts with the Kerala 7’s, a 7-a-side local tournament played largely by local amateurs, with players from African countries joining in as well. The teams play each throughout the year which gives rise to many young exceptional players who go on to represent the state. The 7’s, played mostly in the paddy fields, also kept interest for the game alive in society.

 The Kerala Premier League organized by the Kerala Football Association, was founded in 2013 and the league has been a success as well. The competition involves 24 football clubs from Kerala and is said to be the only state football league in southern India. The KPL also gives teams an opportunity to get promoted to the I-League second division which is the tier 3 competition of Indian football.

 The State government has also taken a keen interest in promoting sports, especially football in Kerala. The government has taken measures towards ensuring more playgrounds and stadiums in all panchayats in the state in order to do so

 Moreover, to promote sports and encourage girls/women to take part in sports, two academies only meant for girls/women were inaugurated at Kannur and Ernakulam last year.

 The recently concluded Santosh Trophy proved to be a huge success on the organizational front as well. The Government of Kerala and AIFF’s collaboration was given high praise for successfully hosting the 75th edition of the Santosh trophy. Moreover, CM Pinarayi Vijayan honored the Kerala football team’s achievement on their soil and awarded Rs.1.14 crores cash award to the state team.

 The success of Kerala lately has already put the state deservedly back on the football map and the future of football in Kerala seems brighter than ever.

Article by Biswajit Talukdar