How Kerala regained its love for football, from Blasters to Gokulam

Gokulam Kerala are the first I-League champion, champion of the womens league, champions of the Santosh Trophy, and runners-up in the Indian Super League (ISL) The Blasters have helped revive football in Kerala . The Blasters have been a sensation since they were introduced in 2014 .

To call it a revival seems a little overstated, as Bino George, Kerala's Santosh Trophy-winning coach, says: We are back on track more than we are back.That's almost certain.The footballers from the calm, southern backwaters are making a comeback: Gokulam Kerala defeated Mohammedan Sporting 2-1 in the season finale on Saturday, becoming the first I-League champion, champion of the womens league, champions of the Santosh Trophy, and runners-up in the Indian Super League (ISL), making it a country so lost in the 1990s golden age.After the turn of the century, the proud, progressive footballing nation had no, if not, token, place in the I-League, which was once the country's top division but now relegated to the second class.

No players from the area made it to the national team between 2012 and 2016, and even after that, only one or two players wore the national team colors.Their dramatic fall from grace was not a mystery.George says we had a golden age where no spectators were interested in local football from the stands after the game.There was no motivation, no jobs, no clubs, and no tournaments.

And the Keralites agree on one factor that caused the revival: the Keralites.According to VC Praveen, the president of two-time I-League champions Gokulam Kerala, the arrival of Blasters has prompted the locals to take up cricket in a big way, as shown by the title.However, with the arrival of the Blasters, football began to go on a downward trajectory, he says.The ISL, which is often accused of stomping out the old clubs, has been a punching bag for Indian football traditionalists.

They filled the void left after Viva Kerala and FC Kochi.George believes that after many years, the Blasters had a team they could trust.The sight of 60,000-plus yellow shirts bouncing in the stands during every home game served as a reminder to the locals of their love of the sport.Many were drawn back to it, so much so that they stayed.

However, Praveen was enthralled by the continued success of Blasters' draw of thousands every weekend.Paveen convinced Gokulam, which has businesses in the hospitality, mineral water, and financial industries, to join the I-League directly through the AIFFs corporate bidding scheme in 2017.I said to the chairman, we'll give it three or four years.Whats going to stop us if we don't win, Praveen says.With the team winning two I-League titles in their five years of existence and also being the womens league champion, there's nothing stopping them now.Gokulam and Blasters, a reflection of all that's going well in Kerala.They didnt need to reinvent the wheel anymore; they just needed someone to nudge them, says Praveen.

The association was also helped by the extension, and the state league began to run on a regular basis.We came to the stage and have been doing well ever since.In the Kerala Premier League, around 20 teams have formed, according to the new generation.Everyone wants to own a team in Kerala today, so many are willing to invest.

Apart from being a reliable conveyor belt of talent in Kerala, especially the Malabar belt, tiny states like Mizoram have produced I-League and Santosh Trophy-winning sides in the last decade.I was at a college in Mampad, one of Kerala's football hubs, where I saw a young player, walked up to him and offered him to sign for Kerala United.It was not a lot of money, just Rs 7,000 per month.The player was so happy to play something other than inter-college tournaments, however.

George says ISL clubs have already approached Jessin for a friendly against the national team, offering him up to Rs 25 lakh.George has two Santosh Trophy victories, most recently from obscurity.These players then migrated to clubs both within and outside Kerala.When we first began in the I-League, we had to rely on players from Calcutta, Goa, and the North East, according to Praveen.

Praveen's optimism, as well as a surge of clubs across districts, gives him a sense of optimism that Kerala will be an unstoppable force in Indian football.He says I just hope we return to the 90s phase.I just hope that people in Kerala return to football.The author is an assistant editor at..He tweets at...