February 7, 1998
F C Kochin blazes new trails
Kerala is among two or three states in India where conditions
are very congenial for sport.
The people are enthusiastic supporters,
not merely of home teams, but more significantly of high skills
and performances, irrespective of which team displays said qualities, even if the local favourite happens to be at the losing end.
Kerala is also the first state
where the government readily got involved in the organisation
and promotion of sport at the grassroots level, thanks to the vision
and quiet planning of the late Lt Colonel Goda Varma Raja and the
Kerala State Sports Council.
Yet, results have not been commensurate with the broad base of
the set up, despite the glory and successes achieved on the national
and international scene by the likes of Suresh Babu, T C Yohannan, P T Usha,
Shiny Abraham Wilson, the late Jimmy George, Cyril Valoor, Jayashankar
Menon, C V Sunny and Leelamma Thomas. And these have come into
the limelight only in the last decade or two.
For far longer than that, Kerala's football has been throwing up outstanding
players, though it was only in 1973 that the state first won the
Santosh Trophy. The world's most popular sport has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a similar status in this tiny southern state
of the country. Sunny Raymond, K P Krishnan, D'Cruz, T M Verghese 'Pape', the first Olympian from the state, Ninan Thomas, who
was unfortunate not to be on the same 1948 London Olympics team,
Manuel, Pavithran, Joseph Fenn and Abdul Rehman, a tower of strength in
the Mohun Bagan defence of the fifties and the sixties and 1956
Olympian, all of whom could and did hold their own against the
best of their counterparts.
Most of these above mentioned stalwarts played their best outside
Kerala, in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Even the Malabar district
team, which made such a fine impression in the Rovers Cup in Bombay
in 1954 before falling to the famed Hyderabad City police, was a
combination of players from different teams, including centre
half Gurunathan from Southern Railway of Madras.
But these stars never came together in a club side. Nor has there
been much grooming of the young talent at a club.
This has been a drawback of Kerala football. From the time of
the merger of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin and
after the reorganisation of states on a linguistic basis and the
resultant formation of Kerala, which also saw the amalgamation
of Malabar in it, in the mid-fifties, the state's football has
been dominated successively by one or two
Thus, the rise and fall of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation
in the fifties, of Alind in the sixties, of Fertilisers and Chemicals
Travancore, FACT, Alwaye, in the late sixties, of Premier Tyres in
the seventies, of Titanium Products and Kerala Police from the
mid-eighties and the emergence of State Bank of Travancore in
the last three or four years. All of them have worked their way
up, reached the peak, but been unable to stabilise and stay there,
and inevitably have come downhill -- some sadly, faster than the others.
Several factors have contributed to this state of affairs. One
is the cream of the talent being whipped away by teams of other
states. Like, for example, Mohammedan Sporting of Calcutta, and
State Bank of India, Madras, who lured away Rashid and Abdul
Salam and Mohideen Kutty, respectively, after the 1965 National
held in 1966 at Quilon. After the 1977 National in
Calcutta, Mohammedan Sporting enticed Premnath Philip, Najeeb
and C D Francis and Mohun Bagan took away Xavier Pius.
Losing stars to rivals is an occupational hazard. Clubs must recognise
this. They should also be honest enough to admit that they had also
snatched stars from others. The truth is, the contribution
of the institutional and company teams to the development of players
has been minimal, though in the case of some, like I M Vijayan
and Sharaf Ali, who sought greener pastures in Calcutta first
in 1991, Kerala Police could take credit for bringing the pair
on the centre stage.
Troubled by the adverse effect of this periodic exodus on the
standing of Kerala in Indian football, P V Paul had been off
and on wracking his brains for a solution. Others, too, were similarly
disturbed. But it was on his visit to Italy as an All-India Football
Federation observer at the 1990 World Cup that the superintendent
of Central Excise and Customs, Cochin, met some kindred souls.
From two of them, Thomas Kannokadan of Thrissur, who is in the computer
business in Switzerland, and T U Davis of Perumbavoor, a businessman in Oman, Paul sustained encouragement for his dream of establishing a truly professional club in Kochin.
Yet, it took six years for the seeds of reformation in Kerala football
to take root. In that period, slowly the administrative machinery
was put in place and the first steps of getting a playing squad
were taken. A M Sreedharan -- who had played for the Electrical
and Mechanical Engineering Centre, Secunderabad, one of the leading
teams from the armed forces from 1964 to 1977 before taking over
as coach of the same team from 1978 to 1982, of Kerala Police
from 1984 to 1993 and of the Kerala state team from 1994 to 1997 --
and 1960 Olympian full back Odampally Chandrasekharan set the
ball rolling for the formation of the team.
They began with the
training of eleven players at the Central School ground in Kadavanthra,
south of Kochin. Both, however, knew that to succeed, a professional
club must have mature, experienced and established players as the
Thus, while Sreedharan and Chandrasekharan spotted and trained
youngsters of potential, those who have been in the national,
state and senior clubs were also recruited. Sentiment as well
as the lure of big money brought I M Vijayan, the dazzling former
India skipper, international Jo Paul Ancheri and Bernard Opernozie,
the versatile Nigerian who had married a girl from Kerala, from
Jagatjit Cotton and Textiles Mills, Phagwara, Punjab, at the
end of the 1996-97 season.
From JCT also came India skipper
Carlton Chapman, the Bangalore lad who in earlier years had also
played for Tata Football Academy and East Bengal, and Shaheed
Akinsanya, the six foot five Nigerian who had been mostly a substitute
with the winners of the inaugural Philips National Football league
last season. From East Bengal came two Indians internationals,
striker Raman Vijayan and goalkeeper Sumit Mukherjee.
FC Kochin also signed on Nigerian international midfielder Friday
Elaiho, who had gained much experience with Brondby, the Danish
club that has had fair success in European club competitions.
But they had to ask Elaiho, Opernozie and Mukherjee to leave on
disciplinary grounds. In their stead, came three Ghanaians, Mohammed
Salissu, Abdul Kareem and World Youth Cup goalkeeper Ali Abubaker -- though the last named's penchant for unfair play puts his brilliance in the shade.
The club has quietly been recruiting players of promise. Like
a host of players in their early twenties from different parts
of Kerala who had been playing in senior leagues. Like A S Firoze
and Mohammed Shafeeq, formerly of the Kerala State Electricity Board,
players of the Sports Authority of India, Kerala junior
and youth teams, and two Keralites from Bangalore's Indian Telephone
Industries, and one from Goa's Vasco Sports Club, a Keralite
from Bombay, goalkeeper Dinesh Nair who made a good debut against
Mohun Bagan in Calcutta in the absence through suspension of Ali
These young players, as well as several from the exceptionally
talented TFA batch of this season, could well
be the nucleus of FC Kochin's first teams of the near future.
The men behind the club have looked further. Already they have
cast the net wide to catch teenagers who will form not only the
club's under-19 team -- it is interesting to note here that the AIFF will make it mandatory for all
the National League teams to have U-19 sides as well -- but will also ensure a conveyor belt
feeding system for the senior team. These teenagers will be given
air fare and other first class amenities to come for the trials
over two to three weeks. If found suitable, they will be offered
Unlike most leading clubs in the country, FC Kochin has provided
in its budget and plans for the comforts of the players and coaching staff, as also facilities to prepare and give of the best. Thus, the
administrators headed by former All India Council of Sports member
and veteran official M P Kurien, general secretary Babu Mathew,
who has gained wide and deep knowledge of sport at the highest
level through covering World Cup football tournaments, Olympic
Games, Asian Games and Asian football for the Qatar-based daily Gulf Times,
finance manager V V K Rao, office manager and former Kerala
official V C Joseph and P V Paul struck a harmonious
rapport with the state government, the Greater Cochin Development
Authority and the municipality for the lease of the newly built
Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, where the last Nehru Cup was held in April 1997, and the Maharaja's College ground
for training and workouts, essential requirements that most major
Indian clubs do not have.
The agreements with the government and municipal authorities were
finalised without much difficulty, thanks to the sincerity and
reputation of the club administrators, traits which also persuaded
Scotsman George Blues, who guided Qatar to the final rounds
of the World Youth Cup (under-17) in Ecuador, to come as technical
director on a six month contract, which will give him less money
than the contract with the Qatar Football Association.
F C Kochin
has signed a three year lease for use of the Nehru
stadium at a fee of Rs 300,000 per annum, besides undertaking
the maintenance of the pitch, which is estimated to cost around
Rs 50,000 every year. For a nominal rent, the club also has secured
use of the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium for workouts and physical
conditioning in the gymnasium and for off-season training.
The players and coaching staff are accommodated in a big house
with eight bedrooms and have a cook to prepare varied menus at
the direction of the coaching staff. They also have a swimming
pool to relax. They also have the best of medical care, with Dr
Benjamin Pulimode, former principal of the Christian Medical
College, Vellore, personally ensuring that nothing is wanting
and Dr Zakarias maintaining a regular check up and records. The
players are also insured.
Indeed, so important is the health and
well-being of the players at FC Kochin that recently, when
Ancheri collided with goalkeeper Abubaker in practice and suffered
concussion, he was not played against Air-India two days later,
not on the advice of the neurosurgeon but because the team management
opted to go into the crucial match without him rather than risk
serious consequences later. A happy consideration that is rarely shown
by leading clubs who do not hesitate to get the player fit for
play with cortisone and pain-killing injections.
All these provisions, so essential for the successful running
of a professional club, demand money and plenty of it. The initial
annual budget was estimated at Rs 150 million. This the administrators
of the club have raised from personal resources and through contracts.
The blueprint for the first professional football club in India
made United Breweries keen to be associated as a sponsor and promote
its Kalyani Black Label brand as part of the club's name -- KBL
FC Kochin. Further, Reebok signed on, at a reported Rs 2 million a year. United Breweries, which supports the club with Rs 3 million, is anxious to expand the association.
Though FC Kochin has not been in existence for even a year,
it already has made its mark, and others in Bangalore, Kozhikode
and Bombay want to emulate it. But FC Kochin knows it has miles
to go. And go it will to Singapore, Malaysia, the Gulf countries
and Israel for a tournament to celebrate that country's 50th
year of Independence, thanks to personal contacts and well