There are three states in India where passion and love for football knows no bounds, West Bengal, Goa, and Kerala. Sadly, there is huge difference in the way the game is progressing in these states. While West Bengal and Goa have maintained their status as hubs of Indian Football, Kerala is going through a difficult phase.
Birth of Viva Kerala
FC Kochin was the first professional football club in India. The credit for its establishment goes to P.V. Paul who had a great vision for the future. The club was founded in 1997 and it went on to win the Durand Cup in the same year. It performed well in the National football league with the likes of I M Vijayan and Joe Paul Anchery in its ranks. But after the meteoric rise, came the fall. Ironically it was due to the lack of funds that FC ceased to exist after a few bright seasons.
In May 2004 a new professional football club, Viva Kerala was born in Kerala. There was a big difference between FC Kochin and Viva Kerala. The former spend large amounts in buying superstars, while the latter focused on getting young and talented local players. Viva started its journey under the stewardship of former NFL winner T K Chathunni. In its first year, Viva defeated top clubs like Mohammedan Sporting, Titanium XI etc and gained prominence. In 2006, Viva Kerala won a Cup held in Tirur; teams from all parts of the country participated in the tournament, such as State Bank of Travancore and Punjab Police. This period also saw the rise of a young Nigerian striker – Badmus Babatunde. Viva Kerala won the 3rd Division National Football League. In the end of the season, A M Sreedharan replaced Chathunni as the club’s new coach.
Qualifying for National Football League
The opportunity for a NFL spot came in the way of Second Division NFL. 12 teams were divided into 2 groups in the first phase. Viva surprised everyone by finishing second in its group and qualified for the final phase with the likes of Salgaocar SC and Chirag United. In the final phase, Viva Kerala finished as runners-up of the Second Division NFL to book their place in the National Football League 2007/08. The combination of Baba Thunde and PK Anil Kumar was one of the main factors in the success of Viva Kerala. In midfield Denson Devadas was very effective while defence was led by captain Dhanarajan and Ombalaji. Sreedharan’s strict training made them competitive at the top level.
Dhanarajan and Denson Devdas moved to greener pastures after their good season in the second division. Viva signed players from all over India including some top names but still didn’t were not successful in the 2007-08 season. Inaugural I-League saw 10 teams fighting it out for the top prize. Star player Joe Paul Ancheri struggled with injury. There was a setback in the path of glory when the club was relegated back to 2nd division at the end of I-league in 2008. It was a lesson learned in the hard way for the club and most of their top players left the club.
Relegation and Resurrection
Nevertheless, Viva Kerala did not go in the same way as FC Kochin. Management made sure that they rectified their mistakes. This ensured the club’s future in Indian Football despite relegation. They went back in search of local talents and found players such as Lalu, Sabeeth, Shibinlal, Sakeer. A new look team under the management of Sreedharan started from scratch. In February Baba Thunde rejoined Viva and they did well to return back to I-League in that season itself. The signing of Bello Razzaq also proved to be a master piece in their successful second division campaign. M P Sakeer was the mainstay for Viva in that season. Salgaocar tried to sign him after his impressive displays throughout the season.
Around this time Viva realized the importance of sponsors as Liaqat Ali found it very difficult to procure the funds needed for club. Until that time Viva didn’t have a major sponsor and they realized that it would be difficult to survive in I-League without money. Lack of financial means limited Viva’s operations in transfer market, and the signings of foreign players Patrick Sisupalan and Ruben Senyo were the only positives.
Viva held on to their prized asset Sakeer but Lalu decided to leave the club and surprisingly joined a second division side. Economic recession was at its peak during that time, which forced companies to reduce their marketing budgets and the history of FC Kochin prevented others to strike a sponsorship deal. In the midst of sponsorship setbacks, Viva started its journey in the I-League. This season saw Viva upset the eventual champions Dempo and get some notable results. There were setbacks in between but the experience of Sreedharan and the young team’s mentality to play attacking football reaped rewards. It the end, Viva Kerala avoided relegation.
Young captain M P Sakeer was a standout performer in 09-10, building from his second division exploits. He has the potential to make it big in Indian football. For Viva fans, however, there was some bad news as Sakeer decided to join Churchill Brothers for the 2010/11 season. Viva’a lack of funds was a major reason for his departure and Sakeer, fondly known as ‘manuppa’, is a professional footballer so fans must respect his decision.
Road towards financial stability
It was made official at a press conference in Kochi that Musli Power X-tra of Kunnath Pharmaceuticals would be the main sponsor of Viva Kerala. Kunnath Pharma’s K.C. Abraham became the Director on the Viva Kerala board and he added “This is not a one or a two-year deal…this is for life”. Meanwhile, the team has been strengthened by the inclusion of experienced midfielder K Kulothungan and the Nigerian Mangut. Viva has followed their traditional style of searching for local talents and added the likes of Javed, Shamil, Sajin and Faisal to the squad. O K Javed has already made his mark as a decent striker with his exploits for Chandni FC, but only time will tell whether he can make it big with Viva Kerala.
I-League clubs need to complete the AFC club licensing criteria; in order to do so, Viva has roped in the services of P.K Kunhikrishnan (A-licensed coach) as the new Head coach. Sreedharan is continuing with the team as of now. Viva will play their home matches this season at Jawahar Municipal Stadium, Kannur. Indian U-19 forward Sabeeth is really trying hard to make his mark on the senior level, and will be one young player to watch out for in the I-League.
Even though Viva has got a life time sponsor they are still not in safe hands financially. The team needs supporters and fan following to excel. It is unfair to criticize unmotivated players if they fail to produce their best performances. Good media coverage and a strong financial background as well as good performances in the I-League will automatically attract top players to the Kerala team. If Viva can produce a mid-table performance this season, then the fan following will automatically improve. If there are more fans to follow, admire and criticize these clubs and their performances, then the standard of football will most definitely improve. As a result, more sponsors will enter the frame.
Fans in Kerala are hoping for a bright future for Viva Kerala and for football in India.
– Joseph George