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Gokulam Kerala FC and their path to consecutive I-League triumphs

Gokulam Kerala FC players celebrating after winning the I-League 2021-22 trophy. (Image Courtesy: Twitter/GokulamKeralaFC)
Gokulam Kerala FC players celebrating after winning the I-League 2021-22 trophy. (Image Courtesy: Twitter/GokulamKeralaFC)
Sayantan Guha

Although it wasn't jotted down by Socrates or Albert Camus, it's carved into the footballing folklore that winning a title is tough, but defending it is what tests a true champion's worth. It's especially difficult in a footballing ecosystem like India's where the talent pool is unevenly scattered, both across the teams and leagues.

Good morning, MalabariansπŸ’₯How’s the πŸ† feeling? https://t.co/xoWNMvOvCF

The hard work required from an I-League club to build a champion team, then have their jewels poached away by the Indian Super League shark, and then rebuild is unfathomable.

However, in fairytale fashion, Gokulam Kerala FC conquered their second consecutive I-League title on Saturday, the final day of the 2021-22 season. That too, while braving the roaring Mohammedan SC fans in the cauldron that is Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan.

After their iconic title run the previous year, the Malabarians lost out on a number of their title-winning players. The likes of Vincy Barretto, Sebastian Thangmuansang, and Naocha Singh went to the ISL clubs.

π™ƒπ™„π™Žπ™π™Šπ™π™„π˜Ύ πŸ†Malabarians become the first club in India to successfully defend the I-League title! ✨πŸ₯³#Malabarians #GKFC #ILeague πŸ† #Champions https://t.co/3FBBYXj08V

But under the able stewardship of head coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese, Gokulam Kerala set out to fill the holes left by their departing stars.

Ahead of the 2021-22 I-League season, the Malabarians promoted multiple players from their reserve team and recruited budding talents from the Kerala Premier League.

Gokulam Kerala started the season with a gritty 1-0 victory against Churchill Brothers. But just after the first round of fixtures, the tournament had to be postponed owing to the COVID-19 outbreak in camps of multiple teams.


The Luka Majcen factor gives an edge to Gokulam Kerala FC

But that brief break of around two months was when Gokulam made an invaluable addition to their team. Alberto Annese signed Luka Majcen from FC Bengaluru United in January.

In his first start for the Malabarians against NEROCA FC, the 32-year-old failed to make a mark. But in the next game, the Slovenian forward started firing on all cylinders. He scored a brace and provided an assist against Real Kashmir, followed by a hat-trick against Kenkre FC and another brace against TRAU FC.

Majcen was a towering presence upfront for Gokulam Kerala and allowed them to switch between different styles of play according to the juncture of the game. Luka's ability to play as a hold-up striker allowed his strike partner Jourdaine Fletcher to play off him and utilize acres of space behind the defensive line.

Early into the first half of the season, Gokulam Kerala were pitted against Mohammedan SC, seemingly their rivals for the title.

The tie evolved into a fantastical episode. The Black Panthers scored the opening goal through Andjelo Rudovic but Luka Majcen equalized in the second half for the Calicut-based club.

Alongside Gokulam Kerala, the Black and White Brigade too were having a near-perfect run in the season. But then, they suffered defeat at the hands of Churchill Brothers and then, RoundGlass Punjab FC a few matches later.

Meanwhile, Vincenzo Alberto's men continued to assert their dominance and extend their unbeaten run.

The Malabarians ended Phase I of the 2021-22 season as the table-toppers with 30 points from nine wins and three draws. Mohammedan SC finished four points behind.


Gokulam Kerala FC and Vincenzo Alberto Annese shows discipline is the key

Mr. Annese, 2 times champion of the Hero I-League. πŸ†πŸ†#Malabarians #GKFC #ILeague #Champions https://t.co/8BcAZWOGVi

Even in the championship round, Gokulam Kerala continued to replicate their dominance. Even in matches where they weren't dominant, the Kerala side just knew how to grind out results.

Having the leadership skills and the "no nonsense" attitude of Bouba Aminou surely helped. The Cameroonian centre-back was also ably partnered by his Indian colleague Alex Saji. Vincenzo made sure not to tweak his centre-back pairing too much throughout the season.

The Malabarians started the second phase with a 2-0 victory against RoundGlass Punjab and topped it off with two wins and a draw in the next three matches. With just two matches remaining in the season, Gokulam needed a single point to conquer their second consecutive title.

They were on a 21-game unbeaten streak. The stage was perfectly set when they faced Sreenidi Deccan FC in their penultimate encounter. The Malabarians were the clear favourites, at least on paper.

But football isn't played on paper!

In an iconic collapse, Gokulam Kerala were 3-0 down against the Vizag-based club by the 37th minute. Midfielder Lalromawia caused havoc as he registered a first-half hat-trick for Sreenidi.

Gokulam Kerala FC players celebrating (Image: Twitter/Gokulam)
Gokulam Kerala FC players celebrating (Image: Twitter/Gokulam)

Although the Malabarians tried to fight back in the second half, with their skipper Sharif Mukhammad sent off, it was too little, too late for them. The match ended 3-1 in favor of Sreenidi Deccan and the title race rolled into the final day of the season.

Three points separated the top two teams and Gokulam still needed just one point. But their final opponents? Mohammedan SC, their season-long rival in the competition.

In the title-decider, Gokulam was able to settle for a draw but Mohammedan SC didn't have that luxury. But what the Black Panthers did have were 40,000-odd supporters cheering for them at the top of their voices. Even stacked? You could say so.

The game unravelled like most finals would - in a cagey manner. Mohammedan SC were the team with the initiative as they rightfully needed to be. Throughout the first half, they kept the pressure on their opponents and dominated the proceedings.

But, as the minutes rolled by, the Black and White Brigade kept growing desperate. Sensing the opportune moment, Gokulam struck. The Malabarians drew first blood through Rishad PP in the 49th minute.

Rakshit Dagar, the goalkeeper for Gokulam (Image:Twitter/Gokulam)
Rakshit Dagar, the goalkeeper for Gokulam (Image:Twitter/Gokulam)

The goal eventually opened up the game as Mohammedan scored minutes later from a free-kick situation. But their aspirations were cut short as the Calicut-based club responded almost immediately through Emil Benny and made it 2-1.

The Black Panthers continued their surge forward but Gokulam displayed monk-like discipline to hold their nerves till the final whistle.

As the final whistle blew, the Gokulam staff, players, and everyone rushed onto the pitch. Their cheers cut right through the haunting silence that was brought into the iconic stadium.

Gokulam came into existence with an ambition to become a champion team. Now that they have done it, not once, but twice in a row, is the hunger satiated?

Seems far from it. Next season is arguably the biggest one in recent history for I-League clubs as there will be promotion spots into the ISL on offer.

With the tremendous revival that Kerala football has seen in the recent past, the possibility of having two teams from the state in the top-tier league is very strong.


Edited by Akshay Saraswat

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