India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.
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Nearly three decades after CV Pappachan engineered Kerala Police’s maiden Federation Cup triumph, he is still amused by a numerical coincidence. The match was played on the 14th day of the Malayalam month in 1990 and all the goals in the final were scored by the No 14s of both teams, Kerala Police and Salgaocar FC, and it was also the 14th edition of the once premier inter-club tournament in the country. With a still-disbelieving tone, Pappachan says: “Some things are just meant to be, aren’t they?”
It was meant to be the season for Kerala Police. For without the largesse of the organisers, the team would not have even qualified for the tournament, tussled solely by local league champions. That year, the experienced Titanium FC, then the emblem of Kerala football, had pipped a primarily inexperienced Police side in the final of the Kaumadi League. “But to generate local interest, the organisers decided to include one more team, and so Police were invited,” recalls Pappachan.
Old-timers reckon that the predominant presence of players from Thrissur, which hosted the edition, prompted the organisers to think on those lines. In fact, Police’s attacking trident were all youngsters from Thrissur — Pappachan, a gangly striker proficient in scoring off both feet with an opportunistic streak, IM Vijayan, a forward of dancing feet and dazzling vision, and Santosh, who had blistering pace and a killer pass to boot. Pappachan was 25, Vijayan 21 and Santosh 23.
Local players meant local sponsors too — banners of local jewellers (the town, it’s claimed, has more jewellery shops than grocery stores) wrapped the arena. In a matter of four months, the ground was revamped into a stadium, and a 70-feet-high gallery was built – which entered the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest and highest temporary stadium in the world. The capacity swelled from a few thousands to 35,000. The final saw a crowd of 40,000, as spectators sat hugging the touchline.
But a crowd of 40,000 is nothing for the locals. The annual Pooram festival is attended by lakhs. Thus, the decision to include Kerala Police was fundamentally a marketing strategy (which in hindsight was smart, as the tournament raked in a landslide profit).
However, few in the football fraternity wagered on them winning the Federation Cup. “Not even our coaches. We had won the south zone league, beating ICF, but no one thought we could beat the likes of East Bengal or JCT or Salgaocar (two-time defending champions). “So, the only briefing we got was not to lose badly and play attractive football,” Pappachan recollects.
A fleeting sidelight, like the percussion gang during the famous fireworks festival (Thrissur Pooram) of the town. To entertain, while the pyrotechnics and caparisoned tuskers swarmed the attention in the seven-day long festival.
It didn’t hurt or fuel them, or even bother — they were too raw for that. “We were considering ourselves fortunate to have been given the opportunity to lock horns against such storied teams. We were a young team, looking to learn from bigger teams and players. We had talent no doubt, but not consistency,” he says.
Like any young side, Kerala Police straddled the extremes — when they clicked, they looked gorgeous, when they didn’t, they looked silly. Their supposed forte was the defence, marshalled by the elegiac VP Sathyan, allied by a young and robust U Sharaf Ali. “When you look back, we formed the core of one of Kerala’s finest ever football teams. But back then we didn’t realise it, we were all young impressionable youngsters, who probably underestimated ourselves,” Pappachan reflects.
It’s a typical trait of Malayali footballers, to self-efface and underestimate, to shrink into a corner. They were winning Santosh Trophies, but required something more significant to break the clutches of self-deprecation and breathe confidence. The Federation Cup triumph was that moment for Kerala football. Without it, the trajectory of the state’s football culture could have been different. Then, as Pappachan repeats, some things are just meant to be. Like the No 14.
No one slept the night before the final. Suddenly, they felt a crushing pressure. “Until then, we had played without any pressure. Advancing from each round seemed a bonus. Now, whether we are underdogs or not, we are expected to win. Without crowd support, we would not have even reached the final, but once we were in the final, we were like, ‘oh, we can’t lose this’. It’s like messing up the kalashakottu (the final blast of the firework festival).”
The sing-song Thrissur slang is littered with pooram and percussion (Pappachan himself is a pancharimelam exponent) references and tusker analogies. So much before Mohun Bagan fans attached the Kalo Hiron (black deer) sobriquet, Vijayan was the beloved kutti-komban (a lovable young tusker) of the masses. “Nothing enchanted them like Vijayan. The whole ground would hold its breath when he got the ball. He was a genius, could do tricks that we could not even imagine. And then that naughty little smile, it floored them,” observes Pappachan.
The understanding was telepathic. Each knew each other’s games inside out, so much so that they could orchestrate goals blindfolded. “Vijayan wouldn’t even look where I was when passing, for he knew exactly where I would be, and I would know where and when he would pass. He was unpredictable at times, for he had several tricks up his sleeve, but I knew exactly what he would try. The only risk was getting transfixed by the dexterity of his footwork,” he says.
For a brief while, the two formed a terrific pair for India too —Pappachan’s most memorable international goal, against Hungary in the 1991 Nehru Cup, was assisted by Vijayan. “A cheeky little pass, which I blasted in.”
Pappachan was more than content playing the second fiddle, the archetypal poacher, the right man at the right place, blessed with ruthless accuracy. The first goal typified it. First, Vijayan struck the crossbar with a piledriver. The rebound fell onto Pappachan’s right foot. He whacked it straight to the Goan club’s legendary goalkeeper Brahmanand Sankhwalkar, who fisted it back to Pappachan. This time, he launched the ball with his left foot. All power and precision. A poacher’s goal, or in Pappachan’s words, “a goal that was meant to be.”
The makeshift stands of the Thrissur Municipal Corporation ground exploded. “I don’t remember the next 10 minutes of my life. I was in the middle of a perfect dream. I couldn’t feel the arms around me. I couldn’t feel the noise around me. There were close to 40,000 people clapping, but I couldn’t hear it. It’s the most memorable but indescribable feeling of my career,” he says.
The goal also unburdened him. “For the first time, we thought we were unstoppable. The last few games we had scraped past our opponents, but after the goal, there was a sudden surge of belief that we could not err. That it was meant to be.”
Salgaocar, though a fraction depleted but still boasting of Bruno Coutinho and Roy Barreto, retaliated, but the Police tide had swarmed the arena. “We were playing with 14 men. We had the crowd as 12th, 13th, and 14th players. It was electric. Salgaocar was drowned in the noise, whereas we were used to it. It only lifted us. We produced firework without crackers,” Pappachan says.
The local side could have scored more goals but for the defiance of Salgaocar’s goalkeeper. Then came a lovely, lobbed ball from the right. “I just leapt and flicked my head. I didn’t even look whether the ball had hit the target, for the moment it left my head, I knew it was going to be a goal. It was so ferociously struck,” he recounts.
The stadium almost burst and the stands began to creak, so much so that the organisers feared they would collapse any time. They held on, like the Kerala Police defence in the dying moments. And when the final whistle blew, the Corporation Ground was whipping up a pooram of its own, replete with firecrackers blazing into the summer sky and percussion haemorrhaging the eardrums. “We (Thrissurians) like to celebrate life king-size. It was already a day for celebrations, as it was both Easter Sunday and Vishu, and now our victory.”
They didn’t sleep that night either. Or the night after. In Thrissur, celebrations are week-long affairs.
In a sense, it was both the beginning and end of the Kerala Police team. Beginning because it was the first time a club from Kerala won a national tournament, the first time Kerala football shed its playing-to-please-only tag, and the first time a team from Kerala showed they could win. End because, Kerala Police’s peak was short-lived, they defended the crown next year, but bigger clubs began poaching the players.
In three years, the nucleus of Kerala Police disintegrated. Vijayan and Sathyan joined Bagan, a few other embraced the Goa clubs, and when FC Cochin was formed, Pappachan too sought greener pastures. An injury-ravaged Sathyan returned after a year, but never quite scaled the heights again. And now Kerala Police FC is but a footnote, or at best a romantic throwback. It sometimes pains Pappachan, who felt they could have ruled Indian football for a longer period, continued churning out players for the state and country. But with a tone of defiance, he says: “Some things are not meant to be.” Just as some things are meant to be.