Kerala has a peculiar place in Indian football. The Indian Super League mostly uses images of a full-to-the-brim Kaloor Stadium, better known as the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, while stating that it is among the most watched leagues in the world. The Brazilian U-17 team that played their group matches in the recently concluded World Cup in Kochi were welcomed with an atmosphere that coach Carlos Amadeu said made them feel “at home.” Crowds turn up in the hundreds to watch their favourite team in action in seven-a-side tournaments.
And yet, the contribution of the state to the composition of the national team is at an all-time low. Defender Anas Edathodika is the only regular starter from the state in Stephen Constantine’s Indian team while CK Vineeth remains a sporadic presence. Vineeth’s Kerala Blasters teammate Rino Anto’s international career has never quite taken off. No club from Kerala has played in the I-League between 2012 and 2017. “If there is a club, there is quality,” says Bino George, coach of the Gokulam Kerala side that will play in the upcoming 2017/18 season of the I-League.
There are few who are more qualified to speak on football in Kerala than Bino George. He is the first, and thus far only, football coach from the state to have successfully completed the Asian Football Confederation’s Pro License coaching certificate. “I have been coaching in Kerala since 2006,” he said on the sidelines of I-League 2017/18 season launch, “I was assistant coach at Viva Kerala from 2006 to the time the club closed. And players like CK Vineeth, Denson Devadas, Asif Kottayil have all come from that club only. Since 2012, at the age-group level, Kerala would be the best. But where would these players play after that?”
He then takes the example of the Kerala Police football team from which the likes of IM Vijayan, CV Pappachan and VP Sathyan emerged. “There were around 10 players from that club alone in the Indian team at one point. If there is a club, there is quality.”
Bino George comes across as a man who tends to remain realistic in the way he approaches coaching. “All the best players will go to the ISL,” he says while explaining how he recruited players for the club, “Some of the better ones (who won’t be signed by an ISL club) will go to clubs like East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. The rest of the players are pretty much the same quality-wise. So it is the foreign players that decide what your results are. I told the president (club president VC Praveen) that I need good foreigners.”
And so when he says that Gokulam Kerala could have “one of the best teams in the league in one or two years,” it has to mean something. He says that, unlike Chirag United, which became Viva Kerala before it shut up shop, Gokulam Kerala have a sturdy financial backing that is also accompanied by a strong philosophy. “Gokulam group is a big company and there is very little chance that it will shut down. In fact, they would consider shutting down this club an insult to them.”
This also provides him with a different kind of challenge. He says that Gokulam group chairman Gokulam Gopalan had said that it would be a dishonour for his company if he doesn’t see news of his team winning when he reads the newspaper in the morning.
One gets the sense that Bino George and the rest of his staff have to walk the the thin line between getting results, keeping fans happy and ensuring the younger local players don’t get sidelined in the process. “In Kerala they may be passionate about the game but if the football is not entertaining or if we lose, people won’t come and even if they do they will start hooting,” he said, “We can’t just play kick and run and expect fans to like us so we will be playing more possession-based football and I have bought players according to that.”
He says that the Gokulam Group’s presence in Kerala is an advantage for the club’s talent scouts. “They have their own grounds, they own schools across the state, so there is a lot of scope for them to spread football at the grassroots level. Once they get that foundation, Gokulam will have one of the best teams in the league in one or two years,” he said.
Since its formation in February 2017, Gokulam FC have been based in the city of Malappuram situated around 170 km to the north of Kochi. But the lack of floodlights in their ground meant that they had to shift nearly 50 km west to Kozhikode where they play in the EMS Corporation Stadium. Gokulam play their first league game at home against Chennai City FC on December 6. George agrees that the league may have no choice but to go for a 2 PM kick off so as to accommodate both the ISL and I-League. At the same time, he says, anybody who knows Kozhikode also knows that playing a football match at 2 PM, regardless of what time of the year it is, is not a good idea.