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February 7, 1998


F C Kochin blazes new trails

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K Bhaskaran

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 clubs.

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 hard core.

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 Abubaker.

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 contracts.

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 wishers.

K Bhaskaran

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