By Shahabaz Aman
Malappuram is not just about exceptionally talented people. This north-east district of Kerala has everything from barren lands to paddy fields, clay to rocks, hill stations to oceans and railway tracks, going up to the world’s tallest teak tree. Many have compared the place to Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional Macondo town (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In fact, if you had observed it from the ‘60s to the ’80s, you would have sworn there was no other place in India with so much love, peace and commitment. It is extraordinary for a people to be so intensely sensitive and yet so non-violent. And the wonderful truth is that if you began to look for the most important reason behind this, the answer you would most likely end up with is Malappuram’s football mania.
Now, you may wonder, what could be so special about this speck on the footballing map? The answer is simple — Sevens Football. Fourteen players jostling against each other, running between the sky and land. Everything is football here, including life itself. Grief, joy, anger, revenge, all emotions bundled together and kicked around in the mud. In the food you eat, you can taste the victory, or loss, of the previous game. At school, there are fights over it, bets placed. All for a game not known elsewhere — the Sevens.
The game evolved here from the 11 members a side out of constraints, of primarily land. Try to draw the boundaries of your normal football pitch here and you are likely to run into an arecanut tree every few steps. In earlier times, mothers would bring their children to doctors with broken limbs, or with shards of glass from playing barefeet.
But Malappuram’s children are taught that it is not victory or loss that is important, but the game. We would return from a game signing songs in the back of our jeep, regardless of the result. I called one of my music albums ‘KEF1126’, after the jeep’s numberplate. But it wasn’t just for the sake of memory. That numberplate was our sufi master, the football field was the mat on which we offered our namaz, the whistle was the azaan, going after the ball meditation.
All over Kerala, and especially Malappuram, Sudani from Nigeria is running successfully because, apart from showcasing the sport, it is also telling the story of the lives built around it. We ask a question in the song Enthundada kalpanthallathe ootam kollan vallathe (What do we have other than football to take pride in). A simple answer: The only organic sport that can’t be corrupted is football.
For, a people in whose veins flows such a game cannot live any other way. It is only natural that they be loving and peaceful in nature. This is why when football World Cup beckons, you shouldn’t be heading to Russia, but Malappuram! Here you can see the unbeatable and inexplicable beauty of the flag of every footballing nation being adopted as the local flag.
It is not the presence of a grand church or any such thing that distinguishes the football craze of Malappuram over other places including Brazil; it is the wisdom that dribbling a ball is as sacred as circumambulating the Kaaba. Here’s a people who know to cheer an American football team while disagreeing with the politics of Trump’s USA. When Brazilian legend Pele describes football as “a beautiful game”, kids in Malappuram will correct him: It’s a beautiful life.