‘Keralam’, as it is fondly called by its inhabitants has a distinctive and a unique pastoral beauty which would bring ‘spontaneous flow of powerful emotions’ even to T.S.Eliot who famously rejected this definition by William Wordsworth in his essay ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’. The sporadic occurrence of rain several times a day, the petrichor emanating from the land and the balmy breeze fills your heart with a blissful emotion which cannot be expressed in mere words and should be best experienced. The towering coconut trees, the blooming golden shower tree and the gigantic elephants further beautify the state’s rich and diversified flora and fauna.
Even, the most experienced voyagers would be swooned over by the alluring charm of the colossal Western Ghats and the brackish lagoons of the Alleppey backwaters. The Thrissur Pooram festival, incessant boat races, the ‘pookkalam’- a floral carpet created during Onam, the aerial movements of a ‘Kalaripayattu’ practitioner and the richly adorned Kathakali artist are a sight to behold and makes you experience what is called ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ even after several years of your visit to Kerala.
A habitual need and a practiced custom of a Keralite teenager is to play the ‘beautiful game’ with strong fervour and zeal in cramped fields. A quirky anomaly in the cricket crazy country of India, where the infrastructure to play professional football is dilapidated to say the least. I often wonder and cudgel my brain as to why the Keralites embrace football with unstinted love and emotion. May be, it had to do with the voluntary camaraderie which is indispensable to play football and one that people from Kerala have in abundance. So, it was a natural choice to choose a game that did not possess the glitz and glamor like cricket. This is a testament to their preference for tradition over novelty: a patrimony inherited from their age old ancestors.
To see the young lads slogging it out with a ragged ball in a tiny grass field with unbated intensity and passion makes the sporting connoisseur in me jump with joy. How often are you blessed to see your friends (especially my friends from Amrita School of Engineering, Ettimadai) play a sport for the sheer love of the game and not concerned about the material benefits that one could earn from playing a sport professionally.
On April 28 1983, when India hadn’t won a cricket world cup, ‘Thodupuzha’- a municipality that is 200 kms away from Trivandrum, welcomed Naduparambil Pappachen Pradeep into the picturesque state of Kerala. Like any other kid from the state N.P.Pradeep became obsessed with the ‘beautiful game’. A heart filled with passion and a head packed with dreams of donning the unfancied Indian jersey, Pradeep toiled hard to make it big in a sport which is widely followed in a fanatical sense around the world. His journey to the helm has not been an instant transmission to paradise. Instead, the man from Kerala had to battle with wrecked poverty along with his compatriots on the field.
He was nothing but a frail school kid who acclimatised himself to go to school without food as, his labourer-parents couldn’t find a job at times. The deep desire within kept him going and nothing else was more important than the game itself.
At times, the world we live in could be an inferno that is certain to doom the lives of those bereft with money. And, at 16 he was a tearful lad who almost abandoned his dreams, but for a doting sister who was amenable to sell her gold chain to buy the first pair of shoes for his beloved brother. It was his signing with SBT (State Bank of Travancore) at the age of 17 that proved to be the peripeteia in his professional career. After this, there was no looking back as the rustic teenager went from strength to strength, as he helped SBT win four Kerala league titles. The man from Kerala also captained the India Under-20 side that reached the last eight of the 2006 AFC Challenge Cup.
The metamorphosis from a striker to a central midfielder through his defensive roles has defined his career as a footballer. It was in the 2005 SAAF championships that Pradeep got his first call to represent his country.. Subsequently, he signed for the current national league champions Mahindra United, where he showcased his versatility as a player by playing at times, as a full back. This caught the eye of the English tactician and former coach Bob Houghton who used him as a left back and as, time wore on he was transformed into an attacking midfielder by the English coach.
‘Midfielder’- a role that is extremely arduous which Pradeep took like fish to water, but with a dash and dare rarely seen in a few. He set the ball rolling for India in the opening game of the 2007, Nehru Cup, though his best moment came in the final. From a pauper he became the prince of Indian football, as he had to orchestrate the team with his newly acquired midfield prowess. Each Indian attack was set up with a mystic magic and an assuring control adorned with a polished finesse. It was his powerful shot just from outside the box in the final that helped to engrave our country’s name in the Nehru Cup trophy for the first time after being the host for almost two decades. Subsequently he played a vital role when India lifted the Nehru Cup for the second time in 2009.He has played in a plethora of positions, except as a goalkeeper and hasn’t fretted or fumed, rather the man from Thodupuzha revels playing in any position.
“I do not have a preferred position as such and I do not feel my game will be affected but on the other hand I fell it adds different aspects to my game. I am willing to play in any position as long as the team benefits from it” said the Keralite in an interview, proving he is the quintessential ‘team man’. It also became a traditional trademark for him to score long range scorchers and it earned him the appellation ‘India’s Steven gerrard’ from his peers, some of whom rate him higher than I.M.Vijayan. His stints with Viva Kerala FC, Mohun Began FC, Dodsal Football club and Mumbai have aided him to alleviate the living standards of his poverty-stricken family. He played a significant defensive role in the 2011 Asian cup, but it was of no avail, as India crashed out after three defeats in the group stage.
Injuries and subsequent poor form have kept him out of the Indian squad for quite some time. As he approaches towards his 31’st birthday many believe, his time is over. The unflinching determination which made him what he is today is all what he requires to make a grand comeback.
Kerala club football is going through testing times and have been unable to make an impact at the national level in the recent years, with several talented players sacrificing their passions to have a lucrative career. The accomplishments of N.P. Pradeep have to be celebrated and we are obliged to shower encomiums and sing hosannas on the man who helped us to rewrite the record books of Indian football. His journey at the top should inspire budding footballers and let us hope we have more footballers from the aesthetic state of Kerala to take Indian football forward.