The pitter-patter of rain falling on odu*, the roar of a distant thunderclap, the hypnotic drumbeat of a chendamelam**, the trumpeting of an elephant resplendent in a nettipattam***, the rallying cries of the helmsman amidst a vallamkalli**** – there are few sounds on planet Earth that make the hairs on the back of a Malayalee's neck stand on end quite like the thwack of a football being hammered into the roof of the net.
*Odu - roof tiles **chendamelam- an orchestra made up of the local drums, known as chendas ***nettipattam – an ornament that adorns an elephant's visage during temple festivals and other special occasions ****vallamkalli – Kerala's famous snake boat race
This oft-unnoticed little nook of India has harboured a love affair for the beautiful game that has held it's people spellbound for ages. Growing up in an area where it rains non-stop (it used to atleast... damn Global Warming!) football is way of life, with many a Malayalee's fondest, most nostalgia inducing, memory being the feeling of cold, slick, mud oozing between their toes as they run after a ball that is often impossible to distinguish from the 'pitch' it is sliding along on... while the rain beats its unique rhythm on their bodies... *goosebumps*...
Football and Kerala - it's just one of those inexplicably wonderful romances.
Kerala and her unrequited love for football
Few outside the region, though, recognise this passion. Even fewer remember a time when Kerala was actually good at the game it so proudly calls its own. You see, Kolkata has the holy trinity of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting. Goa has Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers. Kerala had Kerala Police, FC Kochin and Viva Kerala.
The last time Kerala won the Santosh Trophy was in 2004-05, but even by then the grand ol' inter-state tournament had lost nearly all its sheen. The last team from Kerala to win a Federation cup was the great Kerala Police team of the late '80s and '90s – their triumphs coming in two glorious seasons in '91 and '92 led by the late, great, VP Sathyan. The last truly great footballer to come out of the state was the attacking force-of-nature that was I.M. Vijayan in his prime.
That time frame stands in magnificent isolation, an oasis surrounded by years of desperate failures. Kerala has always loved the game, it's rarely loved her back.
Clubs have come and gone – South India's oldest club RB Ferguson Club of Thrissur (formed 1899) is now a common-or-garden Young Men's Club in Ollur, leagues and mini-leagues have formed and vanished into thin air.
The reasons for this are varied– the disillusionment of those who turned professional, parental (and peer) pressure to stay away from football, the emergence of cricket as a prominent (and phenomenally more successful) alternative and the simultaneous rise of Sachin Tendulkar, the lackadaisical and sometimes downright harmful influences of administrators. There's no one to blame here, or maybe everyone has to shoulder the blame equally.
Ah well, that's just how things worked out.
But the Malayalee love for football - unrequited and yet unrepentant – has lingered on. Without a true love at home, the Malayalee heart wandered - and already well informed about football on a global stage - they attached themselves to nations thousands of miles away, supporting them and living their joys and sorrows with a deep, touching, vicariousness that would astound those unfamiliar with the state, and the feeling.
That is the reason Diego Maradona is still a demi-god in Kerala, the reason why the streets of many-a-town in the state turn albiceleste or canary yellow for a couple of months every four years, the reason why there are flex banners for players as varied as Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Zinedine Zidane, the reason why barbershops have boards showing off the varied hairsthairstylesistiano Ronaldo and the reason why fights break out between fans of (especially) Brazil and Argentina.
Hell, the way people love him, Messi might as well have been from Manjeri.
Kerala, though, has always sheltered ambitions that one of her own teams will eventually start showing some signs of life in return. For the longest time, all that passion was channelled into sevens football – a version of the game played on a much smaller side with seven men a-side – which is the most popular form still and where local clubs are supported with nigh on fanatic pride. But they don't have representation in the i-league anymore, and there really was no glimmer of hope on the horizon when it came to football proper.
That's where the Indian Super League and the Kerala Blasters have come careening in.
The Blasters, CK Vineeth... and a return to prominence?
The Indian Super League has been lambasted in many quarters, and ignored in others, but the people of Kerala will love it for giving them the Blasters. Although named after the nickname of their owner and India's most loved sportsman, Sachin Tendulkar, their popularity has little to do with his own. It's a popularity that stems off finally having something/someone of their own to support.
They've channelled years of frustration, tears, hopes and love into the yellow jersey and that is on display every time the Blasters take to their home turf of Kaloor Stadium, Kochi. It's not the voice of 60,000 screaming fans that you hear, it's the thunderous roar of support from an entire state that has been united like never before. Messi fans sit alongside Ronaldo fanatics, Argentina fans wear yellow, Pele supporters hug Maradona devoteees... as long as you are Malayalee, you love the Blasters. End of.
In the first season they had finished an impressive second – behind that Mecca of Indian football – Kolkata, but the second season and the beginning of the third raised real fears that even the ISL team was taking the well trodden road of failed Kerala clubs aplenty.
But then the team fought back. And the people loved them for it.
The talisman of the team, the man responsible for catalysing the rise of the men in Yellow from the bottom of the table to the final is an unassuming young lad from Kannur named Chekiyot Kizhakkeveettil Vineeth. He has come in after a season of unparalleled success at Benguluru FC and has added zest to the ranks; and along with his BFC teammate Rino Anto has added much appreciated local flavour to the team for which they were previously reliant on the ageless Mohammed Rafi.
That little factoid has added a touch of old-school romance to an already feel-good tale.
Tomorrow, they go into battle for that long elusive success - it's been twelve years since Kerala won a Santosh Trophy and a quarter of a century since any club from the land won any national competition of prominence.
Tomorrow, 35 million will be shouting their hearts out as the men clad in yellow, their team, herald Kerala's resurgence into football prominence