Passion vs profession: Why Kerala football stars risk injury to play in local seven-a-side football tournaments
The risks are high, but these stars seem to be willing to give it their all, for the fans.
The love for the beautiful game in God's Own Country is quite well known. In a cricket-crazy nation, Kerala is an oasis where football rules the sporting arena, something that is not seen across the country.
It is not just at the top level where the sport is popular. Of course, Kerala Blasters in the ISL and Gokulam Kerala in the I-League have exhibited big fan bases. However, it is not just at the top level that football is popular. In fact, the district of Malappuram is a mini football hub in the state where a completely different form of the beautiful game has captured the imagination of the fans.
The sporting arena in Malappuram is as different as it could possibly be from the glitzy stadiums that we are used to seeing in the ISL. However, the fans throng to the stands by the thousands and give us a full house in every match. This is the world of seven-a-side football.
Smaller playing fields, clay pitches, and packed stadiums under floodlights -- these are some of the key characteristics of sevens football in Kerala.
"I've grown up playing sevens football in Mallapuram. Everyone loves football there," Ashique Kuruniyan, who currently plies his trade in ISL side FC Pune City, said to Sportskeeda. "Its great fun to play this version of the game."
Building the football 'ecosystem' in God's Own Country
A number of football stars from the state of Kerala have come through the sevens football system, and have gone on to play at the highest level. The likes of Ashique, national team centreback Anas Edathodika, and even legendary footballer IM Vijayan are a testament to this fact.
"Sevens is a great way of developing young football players. You get less space, so the young players need to use their technical abilities," said Gokulam Kerala head coach Bino George, who had himself also played sevens football in his younger days.
It is not just the players who make it to the top level, but also the ones who do not make it to the ISL or the I-League that benefit from this format.
"Its good for the football ecosystem there. Not everyone can progress to the top level. So for the players who can't make it, but still want to continue playing, it's a great opportunity for them to play and earn some good money," said Ashique. "They can also do some other job along with playing sevens football."
Giving back to sevens football, or increasing the risk?
A number of football players from Kerala were seen playing sevens football after the end of the Indian football season. The likes of Anas and Ashique have played a few matches back in their home state.
However, playing sevens football in Malappuram brings with it, its own set of risks. Since the matches are played on clay pitches, the risk of injuries increases manifold.
"It's all played on clay pitches. But still, there's so much interest in this. Lots of fans come to watch sevens football. They should improve these grounds as well," said Ashique.
However, when asked about the decision of the top footballers to play sevens football during the offseason, Bino George took a more sympathetic stance. He believes that it is the emotional connection between the player and the local club that groomed him in his younger days that makes come back year after year.
"Firstly, these players from the ISL and I-League are not playing sevens football in Kerala for the money. They already earn enough from their clubs. It's just that they want to give something back," he said. "See, someone like Anas, who earns in crores and plays for the national team, does not need to play here. But he still does that because of his attachment to the local club.
"They only go there to play a few matches there. These guys are emotionally attached to the clubs, and that is why they keep going back," he continued.
However, he does not support this practice. Being a coach himself, Bino George believes that it is too much of a risk for a professional player and the club that he has a contract with, to go and play sevens football.
"Once a player gets to the professional platform, in the I-League or the ISL, I would not suggest them to go back and play sevens," he said. "If they go and get injured, the club will have to incur the expenses. That's not fair on the club, is it?"
It is a question of passion against professionalism in case of the Kerala players. Players obviously do not see such crowds on many levels of Indian football. Even top-level tournaments like the Santosh Trophy or the Super Cup failed to attract a sizeable number of fans to the stands.
However, Kerala is a place where even the lower level football tournaments attract a lot of interest, and the fans are more than happy to see the star players from their region don the colours of their local teams once again, even though it is only for a few matches. While there have been talks about the Kerala Football Association (KFA) taking action against this, it remains to be seen whether an amicable solution can be found.