FC Kochin - An Obituary
This article is about a football club I used to support much before I started following EPL or tennis or motorsport or any other sport for that matter. It was in the late 90’s and the early 2000’s when India had just started watching European club football. It was before the time I could recite the entire Manchester United team up to the reserves, this was back in the times when I thought Arsene Wenger owned Arsenal (Ah, yes, We all did that at one time, didn’t we?) . I supported them because of the most basic reason anyone supports a football club, because they are from their home town or state. I am talking about FC Kochin.
FC Kochin, the first professional football club in India, was formed in 1997 at Cochin. In their first season with the help of some good local players like I.M Vijayan and Jopaul Anchery and some African players they won the South Zone Federation Cup but were denied an opportunity to play in the National Federation cup because the Indian Football Federation said that it was against regulations to allow a team in their debut season to play in the Federation cup. They also won the Durand cup (kind of like the Indian version of the league cup) in 1997, their debut year, beating BSF.
But in the coming years they were not able to replicate the form they showed in their first season, although they managed to come fourth in the national football league. The next three seasons saw them finishing sixth, fourth and fourth again in the National Football League. This was the time when FC Kochin was coached by Chattunni, one of the best football coaches in India, and had some very good crop of Indian players including Vijayan and Anchery and also some really good Ghanaian players. One of the Ghanaian players called Sunday Sia, used to play as a goal keeper during the first half of the game and as a striker during the second and was said to be exceptional in both positions.
One of the best memories of my life till date is when FC Kochin was playing their home matches in Thrissur in Kerala, my home town. This would have been when I was 11 or 12 years old. They used to stay in a hotel which was opposite to the bus stop from where I used to catch my school bus. On one day an African player was standing on the balcony and seeing me looking at him waved to me. I asked him “Sunday Sia?” and he replied to me “no, Eugene Gray”. He was one of the other Ghanaian players in FC Kochin at that time. I then shouted out to him and said I was a big fan on hearing which he went inside and then came back out with Sunday Sia. Both of them then said hi to me and waved at me and stood in the balcony smiling at me till my bus came. Not going to the stadium to see their match live during this time is one of the biggest regrets of my life till date.
At the end of the 2000-01 season, the club was in a huge turmoil. There was no sponsorship money coming in to the club and the Indian Football Federation had still not paid them for their participation and their fourth place finishes in the last two leagues. With no money good players started leaving the club. Vijayan and Anchery left for JCT, Sunday and Grey left for Churchill brothers. The management tried to bring some life in to the club by bringing an ex Czech international goalkeeper Karel Stromsik as the coach and some Brazilian players. But without money or good players Stromsik couldn’t do anything and he left the club halfway through the season, saying not even Sir Alex Fergusson could save this team from relegation. The management couldn’t then afford to appoint a new coach and the role was then taken over by one of the Brazilian players in the club at that time, Best Bestman. I remember reading an interview with Bestman in which he described the pathetic state the team was in. The players were all really low on morale, everyone wanted the season to be over and to leave the club. The club eventually finished 2nd last in this season and got relegated to the second division.
They played in the second division for a season and then the team disappeared from the Indian football scene. Couple of years later with the help of some football enthusiasts from the state, they assembled a team and tried their luck in the second division but again failed to reach the first division and no one has heard of the team since.
The important thing to note from this is not the fall of a great team or anything. FC Kochin was just an average team with no real big achievements or anything. The takeaway from this story of FC Kochin should be the sorry state of Indian football. This was the first football club in India; it represented what Indian football should become in order to compete with the best in the world. Instead of supporting it, the Indian Football Federation could do nothing more than shove rules in its face and not pay them what they owed. The Indian football’s faint attempt to bring professionalism by naming the league I-league and only allowing professional teams to play in the league failed miserably as they couldn’t even get a title sponsor or a broadcaster for the 2010-11 season. Can you imagine that the top most football league in our country had no takers, the channels prefer to show the 20-20 tournaments between god knows which all small teams instead. Big teams like Mahindra United, ONGC and JCT have disbanded their teams due to non interest of the Indian Football Federation into development of football in the country. It is not like these teams are very poor and can’t afford to maintain a football team. Mahindra united is owned by Mahindra and JCT by JCT mills, one of the leading textile mills in the country. These companies were just fed up at what they were getting in return for their investment in terms of both money and publicity that they no longer wanted to pursue their interest in football. Many departmental teams which where the mainstay of Indian football in the late 90’s and early 2000’s like ITI, Air India, HAL etc have also disbanded their teams. Very successful Kerala department teams like Kerala Police, Titanium and SBT no longer seems to take any interest in football. Goa and Kolkata are the only two places in India now where football teams can come up and survive. In Goa it is basically because all the football is controlled by the mob, so they don’t really care about the money or the publicity.
So now as we enter the fifth season of the I- League, the AIFF still has no clue as to whatever is to be done to change the fate of the game in India and as a keen fan of the sport in the country I am fearing it will shortly be too late to do anything to rescue it.