An ambitious project to restructure football in Kerala and popularise it among school children has just been launched. It was formally kicked off on Sunday with selected school children giving a demonstration of football skills.
Football has been a passion in Kerala for years. It was reckoned the most popular game in the State by the 1930s when several football clubs were active in Travancore and Malabar areas. 'Sevens' football was quite popular in those days.
Kerala won the national championship and lifted the Santosh Trophy for the first time in 1973. This gave the game a big boost. The State soon became a favoured venue for staging major national tournaments since the local popularity of the game was a guarantee of financial success.
Several private and public sector undertakings in the State have promoted football.
The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation built up one of the strongest teams.
Kundara Aluminium Industries, Premier Tyres, Keltron, FACT and Titanium Products also helped in the emergence of good players.
A majority of the players in the team that won the Santosh Trophy in 1973 were from the Premier Tyres.
Tournaments like those for the G.V.Raja Trophy, Sait Nagjee Trophy and Chakola Trophy played a significant part in the development of football in the State.
However, it had to wait for nearly two decades to lift the Santosh Trophy again -- in 1992 and 1993.
In the 1990s, the Kerala Police team, which took shape after 1985, contributed to the State's football glory. IM Vijayan and Pappachan were among the top Police players.
The State, however, lacked facilities for proper training in modern techniques of the game. After satellite television arrived in 1986, the people got the opportunity to watch the World Cup matches live. This resulted in renewed interest in football.
A commentator recently wrote that the State's football lovers were familiar with Brazilian players even before satellite television brought world football into their homes. They had been following newspaper and magazine accounts of the Brazilians' exploits in the game.
The Brazilian footballers are household names even in the villages of Kerala. Pelé is revered as the greatest player ever, and a talented local player is compared with him. The highly talented Vijayan, for instance, is often described as Kerala's Pelé.
Sadly, local training facilities did not match the people's interest. The State has been able to produce some of the country's best known footballers in spite of this shortcoming mainly because nationally, too, the standards remain way below international levels.
The training programmeme which has just been launched is a part of the Asian Football Confederation's Vision India scheme. It is expected to be followed by the launch of an under-11 Kerala Schools League.
The Kerala State Sports Council and the Kerala Football Association have already identified 56 school teams from seven of the State's 14 districts to take part in the league. In the competitions at the district level 2,240 identified talents will participate.
The Asian Football Confederation conducted several workshops and preparatory courses as a prelude to the launch. Three grassroots and youth workshops were held at Kochi, Kozhikode and Tiruvalla. Two introductory coaching courses for physical education teachers and Grade III referees were conducted for the benefit of officials from the identified schools.
Some private efforts to discover football talent are also afoot. Kochi is one of the eight cities in the country where the soft-drinks giant Coca Cola, in association with the Brazilian Football Academy, screened 3,000 young footballers, aged 12 to 15 years.
In all these cities inter-school tournaments were held. Twenty-four schools participated in the preliminary rounds in Kochi. The winning teams from all the cities will figure in the finals to be played in Mumbai late this month.
Sixteen players selected on the basis of their performance in these matches will be sent to Brazil in July for a week's training.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is making its own contribution to football.
Thanks to its initiative, Kannur now hosts an annual football tournament in memory of late Chief Minister EK Nayanar.
The present effort to revive interest in football comes in the wake of fears of a decline in its appeal. Some observers have linked this development to the growing interest in cricket as a result of TV patronage, especially after the emergence of Shreesant from Kochi as a cricket celebrity. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 5, 2008.