The playgrounds and paddy fields of Malappuram in Kerala, which hosted the local footballing tournament till just a week ago, are unrecognisable at this time of the year. All slush and mud, they will remain waterlogged for another two months. Children will return to the playgrounds after the monsoons, and the fields will be sown with paddy, only to be reconverted into makeshift stadiums to host the sevens (seven-a-side) football tournament in December, after the harvest.
Just like their land, the locals, too, undergo a transformation every six months. Many players are into the game only as long as the season lasts, and a majority of them hail from villages around Muslim-dominated Malappuram district. Some are also from adjoining Kozhikode, Palakkad and Thrissur. Melatoor Usman has been playing for all-India sevens for the last six years. “In the just-concluded season, I played for 24 finals and won in 18. There were 35 all-India sevens tournaments this season,” says Usman, who is associated with the sevens club FIFA Majeri, Malappuram. Once the season ends, he returns to his small textile shop in the city. “One of my team members works in the Gulf for six months and is a footballer in Malappuram the rest of the time,” he says. Local players are able to multi-task as the matches are played only in the evening.
About 500 tournaments are played every season. Apart from local clubs, some clubs from Goa and Kolkata also participate. There are three categories in which sevens tournaments are played; all-India, mini all-India and local ones. Kerala Sevens Football Association (KSFA) has recognised 40 all-India tournaments. At a time, eight all-India sevens tournaments are played in various parts of north Kerala, particularly in Malappuram. Major local clubs even rope in young players from Latin America and South African countries. Each team is allowed two foreign players. KSFA convenor Muhammed Asharaf says, “Club leaders go to Kolkata to get affordable foreign players. Some players directly approach the clubs. Sometimes, existing players bring fresh talent when they return the next season.”
During a season, 150 to 200 foreign players camp here. After the Kerala leg of sevens gets over, some of them move to Goa or Kolkata to play in the local clubs, while others return to their home countries and come back the next season.
Football associations like FIFA are yet to recognise the sevens tournaments held in Malappuram. However, several Indian players started their careers through these matches. I M Vijayan, Pappachan, U Sharafali and Jeo Paul Ancheri are only some names for whom the sevens tournament became a launching pad.
A player earns Rs 1,500-2,500 per game. “During the season, an average player can make a monthly income of Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000. Injuries are common during the season, and almost every player would be grounded for two or three weeks in the season. A player who plays the entire season can make up to Rs 3.5 lakh,” says Usman.
The tournaments are organised by local committees with sponsorships from business groups. “There is an audience of 2,000-5,000 for local tournaments; the number can go up to 15,000 for all-India matches,” says Jaffar Khan, a fan who follows the sevens tournaments keenly.
The organising committees comprise members from political parties as well as local leaders and social workers. According to Asharaf, local clubs plough back the revenue from the tournaments for regional development. “Many local schools have got better infrastructure and free-of-cost sports traning facility, thanks to sevens matches,” says Asharaf.
It’s not uncommon to find football enthusiasts playing in the slush of the fields even now. In places like Mankata, near Malappuram, local clubs have started organising football in rains.