Mogral Soccer League - For the football crazy village of Mogral
Kasargod, Kerala – A city filled with people who seem too busy for sport. There were hardly any signs that there was any following for football, or any other sport for that matter, at all at this bustling locality. When I was there, the city was gearing up for the Mallik Deenar, marking the anniversary of Swahabi ‘Malik-ibn-Deenar’ coming to India; there was the marriage of the son of a Member of Parliament where half the town was apparently invited and the most amazing food was served. Then, there was this huge market where the other half of the town was and also where I caught the the first glimpse of anything related to football – a man wearing Inter Milan‘s colours with Celtic‘s logo on it.
I moved away from the city’s centre – around 8 kilometers away to a tiny village called Mogral and suddenly it was like I was no where near Kasargod, or the rest of India for that matter. Cars were peppered with stickers of a certain Mogral Soccer League, of franchisees unheard of. Flex banners covered almost every inch of space beside the highway, banners of Messi and Ronaldo and Maradona, banners of local footballers, of local legends, banners of franchisees and of their owners – there were banners of all sorts. And then, I finally reached – the Mohammed Kuruthip soccer stadium.
I had heard a bit about the amount of passion people in Mogral have for football, but nothing prepared me for what was to come. As the day wore on, people of all ages started to pour in and the sheer number of people in attendance was befuddling. For a village that has roughly a 15 square kilometers area (compared to Bangalore’s 741 km²), there were close to 7000 football fans desperate to catch a glimpse of their local stars playing. The football was coming to them thanks to an Indian Premier League (IPL) meets English Premier League(EPL) style 7-a-side football tournament – the Mogral Soccer League(MSL), organized by the Mogral UAE Sports Committee.
The CEO of the Mogral Soccer League, Mohammed Saleem, laments on how they had to build a seating gallery for the scores of fans who thronged the ground and yet it wasn’t enough. A seating capacity for around 5000 fans was arranged after the enormous response on the first day, but even that did not suffice. There were fans atop trees, atop abandoned buildings in the vicinity and even the school adjoining the ground.
“Once the finance was fixed, our main problem was accommodating the huge crowd – we were unsure about how we could get everyone to watch the match in peace and that is when the idea of a seating gallery occurred. Though the gallery seated most of the fans, there was still a big number forced to stand and watch or go atop buildings closeby to catch a glimpse,” he said.
This passion is what got Mohammad Saleem and team to work on the idea of MSL. Talk to anyone in Mogral about what interests them most and the response is immediate – ‘Football!’ Saleem only stressed on the same: ‘In Mogral, for football there is a special passion. There is a lot of talent in our village and the idea behind MSL is to provide a platform for budding talents to go onto bigger things.
“We first conducted such a tournament in the UAE and we liked what we saw, so we decided to do it in a more thorough manner in Mogral itself. The tournament in UAE was just a 1 day affair and the idea of MSL was there with us for sometime before this. But the success of the tournament in UAE gave us a lot of hope. There were around 50 people from the village of Mogral who came all the way to Dubai just to watch the tournament – such is the passion!”
Chairman of the group, Shakeel Abdullah, added that it wasn’t only about conducting a tournament, but one that is a class-apart was what they were more interested in.
“If we conduct a tournament, it has to be different, something special, something extra. We wanted to put in a sense of professionalism in the tournament. We wanted to take the good things from the IPL and the EPL and put it to use here – that’s why we decided to have a franchisee system, 8 franchisees that will be owned by the people of Mogral. The players are picked by team owners in a pre-tournament auction. They are paid according to the skills they have and how well their teams rates him and they also get to play alongside established players,” said Shakeel.
In India, one is used to seeing big crowds – Cricket matches, political rallies, protests, movies. But one would rarely associate big crowds with football in India – except in Bengal for the derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. But Mogral proved to be different. A rather silent village is suddenly transformed into bedlam. Coloured flares pour out from every corner; chants fill the air; vuvuzelas, horns, whistles and drums give the ground a carnival atmosphere, the commentator bellows something into the mic in Malayalam (the local language), the teams roll out, escorted by excited kids, to the Champions League theme (they even carry a big banner promoting fair play) and then the football starts.
India mid-fielder Clifford Miranda, who was the chief guest on Day 2 of the 7 day tournament, was taken aback by the number of people who had shown up to welcome him. He proclaimed, “I have never seen so many people come to watch a football match. I was at Pune for a football match a week before the MSL and there were around 30 people who had come to watch us. But here, the response is amazing. I hope I can play here next year.”
What sets the MSL apart from any other over-hyped football tournament in India is the fact the local players get a chance to mix with the best in Indian football. Each franchisee has to include atleast 3 players who are not from Mogral and the inaugural edition saw India players Mohammad Rafi, N.P Pradeep and several top Kerala players take part in the tournament. A chance for young local players to play alongside those that they have seen on TV would have been impossible otherwise.
Saleem said that the local players were extremely excited about taking the field with/against the best in Indian football and also that the tournament enjoyed a tremendous ascent in quality thanks to the imports.
“Our Chairman, Shakeel Abdullah is very good friends with most of the Indian team, so that helped us rope in the imports and give the tournament a big boost in terms of quality and star-cast. The presence of the stars was also a big thing for all the players because they got to learn so much from them – playing with them, against them or even if it was just watching them. The youngsters get to play with national and state players and it is an experience all of them have been extremely happy about,” Saleem said.
The tournament is a way of giving back to Mogral what the village gave to them when they were kids. And the organizers do not stop at just setting-up and conducting the tournament, the Mogral players of yesteryear were honoured, Kuruthip Mohammad, who has selflessly served Mogral football for 55 years, was given a grand reception and treated like a king and they also donated whatever little they could to charity to help the less fortunate in Mogral. They also have plans of roping in former players and coaches to help out budding talents in the village. For Saleem, Shakeel and co. it has never been about money.
“Whatever we have done through this tournament has only been to give back something to our tiny village,” they said. “The exposure to quality football, top-class coaching for the best talents, honouring those who did our village proud and even whatever little charity work that we could do – all of this has been through self-interest and not with the aim of making money.
“We only want to make the event successful, we could have easily had an entrance fee, we could made some easy money but we decided against it. This is something new for everyone here and we wanted everyone to be a part of it,” they concluded.
The tournament may not boast of a constant stream of the top talents in the country. The ground may not have been a lush green one with top-class facilities. The teams may not have budgets to rival the ones in India’s top league – but the capacity crowd, the organizers or the players did not find any reasons to complain. They were being treated to a tournament like never before and they made sure they took everything back from it.
Maybe they lacked in quality, the quality of the I-League was way higher; or so I thought till a youngster named Dilshad dribbled past 2 opponents with ease and caught the keeper off his line with a cheeky lob from behind the half way line.
That elicited a boisterous response from the crowd, but I only smiled. Being proven wrong never felt this good!