A MERE TWO YEARS AFTER ITS inception, Gokulam Kerala FC has taken on a central role in Indian football in a way few saw coming.
The club, the first from Kerala to play in the top division league of India since Viva Kerala shut down in 2012, is fielding teams in the junior leagues that are doing fairly well, has done well in the Kerala Premier League. And for the second year in a row, GKFC has achieved the unique status of being the only club from I-League, 2nd Division League or the Indian Super League to also have a team in the final round of the Indian Women's League.
Other than that, the club is also playing a key role in the rebel alliance of I-League clubs, which is running a concerted campaign against the threat of forceful relegation that's looming over the independent professional clubs in India.
Mr VC Praveen, the club president and son of the owner Mr Gokulam Gopalan, has his hands full even when the domestic season has more or less wrapped up.
A former footballer, it was Mr Praveen who persuaded his family to invest in a football club. And when he stopped for an exclusive interview with TFG, it appeared that the team's performance in the I-League (finishing 9th out of 11) remained one of his major concerns, despite so much going on off the field,
"We were probably a little over-confident with our strength. We had a good team and we experimented with new players back to back. The new players were equally good but in the couple of initial matches we lost, which lowered the confidence of the team. It affected everyone, so part of the blame has to fall on the management... unlike the other clubs we didn't have an academy or youth teams to build on, we entered the top division straight away. We formed a team and we were lucky enough to debut in the I-League. Given the lack of experience we had, I think we did try quite hard to put up a fight against more experienced teams like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan."
Before the season began, GKFC undertook a massive renovation project at the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode, where the club has settled down as full season tenants. The reaction from local fans has been mixed; some of the matches saw a high turnout while other matches were sparsely attended. Praveen, however, did not sound worried about that,
"Kerala fans are much like Kolkata fans. If you perform well, they will praise the team and support it in numbers, and the team will gain a huge following. Once you fail to perform, there will be accusations, fans will say they were let down, or the club is not upholding the interest of the game, it's a corporate and just looking out for the brand. But we can't blame them, we'll just have to wait for next season and try our best to make a strong comeback. Even this seaon, towards the end, we picked up a few good wins, and even if we didn't win we fought hard to get draws. It has given us some confidence that next season we will come back strong."
For now, though, the club is embroiled in the ongoing battle over the future of I-League and club football in general. A roadmap endorsed by AIFF and their commercial partners FSDL has proposed making Indian Super League the top flight league of the country, dissolving I-League and relegating most of its clubs to a new second tier league called League One. The I-League clubs have been vocal in opposition of this plan for a long time. But every summer they have had to deal with an unnerving uncertainty over when the next season of I-League would begin, whether it would be televised or whether it would be held at all.
Mr Praveen indicated that this deliberate obfuscation of the future by the AIFF and FSDL is testing the clubs' patience,
"Why this uncertainty? How long can this go on? How can we sign our foreigners or any player who we think is good on a long term contract in the current situation? For a club like us it's really difficult to invest so much because we don't know if it will be for one year or two years that we get to play in the top flight, because there is no roadmap as such that has been given to us... experienced clubs like Minerva or even NEROCA are saying we might have to close down because of this. Even legacy clubs like Salgaocar and Dempo stepped aside because they saw no value in playing if they are forced to go down to second tier. I think at least for three years we should have a clear roadmap of what is going to happen."
When asked how GKFC would react if AIFF unilaterally declares ISL as the new top flight and demotes I-League clubs to second tier, he said,
"Frankly I am against this speculation on which league should be top in media or elsewhere. I don't know how such thoughts are coming to them. Because right from the inception of ISL they said it's a different kind of tournament. So after 5-6 years how can they suddenly change their tune? I even told my fellow club owners, why do you have this fear in you that ISL might overtake us? Because they're not following the FIFA norms, they don't have promotion-relegation. When such basic things are not done, why should be fear that they can damage our status as the top division league?"
He stood by the claim put forth by I-League clubs that the league, despite being under-promoted by the Federation, can grow if managed in the right way,
"Yes, the I-League can sustain by itself. The TV viewership has been good, the crowd attendance is increasing... those are proof enough. Even in our case, Kerala being a state passionate about football, people across the globe are watching our matches. I myself had no idea that such popularity existed. But every time, before and after match, I have been getting calls and messages from people in the Gulf and as far as the US, Switzerland... I was surprised by the kind of following we got."
The claim, though, is put to question by the fact that Flowers TV, a Malayalam TV channel co-owned by Mr Gokulam Gopalan, had picked up the rights to telecast Gokulam Kerala FC's matches in the I-League, but stopped doing so after a couple of matches. This gave rise to claims that the I-League matches have proven to be so unpopular, that even a channel where Gokulam Kerala FC's owners had a major stake decided not to show them.
Mr Praveen rejected that claim, saying the situation was far more nuanced,
"I-League rights came to Flowers TV at a very late stage, and it turned out the match schedules were conflicting with our pre-contracted prime time TV serials. The channel has soaps that air through out the week, on Sundays we had top rated entertainment programming already scheduled. That channel didn't mesh well with sports. That's what caused the initial difficulty. And back then we didn't have the news channel, called 24 News, that we have now. So I-League matches with Malayalam commentary are much better fitted for our news channel. It's already being discussed and if a deal can be worked out, we will be showing I-League matches there next season with Malayalam commentary."
For now, though, the club is putting all its resources behind its women's team, which has recently picked up national team players like Anju Tamang and Dalima Chibber ahead of the Indian Women's League 2018-19 (final round).
"Women's football is getting more popular, definitely. The players, too, are very popular, as we saw in the recent SAFF Women's Championship. We need more such players. It should be mandatory to have U-15 and U-18 women's teams for I-League and ISL clubs, they should promote this."
Asked whether the lack of financial returns and publicity is deterring clubs from investing in women's football, Mr Praveen said it was necessary to make the initial investment in women's football in order to bring up a higher number of local players which in turn will lower the financial burden on clubs,
"It's happening now... I don't really think it's worth paying that kind of high amount but in the interest of the game you are forced to do it, because we have a very limited number of players. Clubs from Odisha and Manipur have it easier when it comes to picking local players so they are dominating. Now with the U-17 Women's World Cup coming up, I'm sure the sport will be popularised among girls in other states too, and Kerala will be one of the states that will be doing really well in the next couple of years. The situation will change then."
He assured that no matter how the Indian football landscape changes, Gokulam Kerala FC will remain active in both men's and women's football in the long term,
"We will be continuing with all our teams. We formed a team for the Kerala Premier League, and we intend to make a strong team for the I-League."
But what if the AIFF and FSDL restructure the leagues and ISL is made the new top league? Will Gokulam Kerala FC bid for an ISL entry in that case? Mr Praveen replied in the negative,
"In the present scenario it doesn't make sense investing so much, everybody is running on a loss. Whether it's I-League or ISL, football is a loss-making business right now. If in I-League somebody is losing 5 crores, why should one go to ISL and lose 15 crores?"
The good of Indian football, he insisted, is in having a merged league with promotion-relegation as the top flight,
"It should be I-League or a merged league. We're not interested in playing in ISL. Doesn't make sense to enter a private league. When a league is running under FIFA's directions why should we pay such a massive entry fee? The I-League clubs are united in this cause."
At present, though, Gokulam Kerala FC, along with 6 other I-League clubs, are facing possible fines and even suspension from the AIFF Disciplinary Committee for their boycott of the Super Cup. Asked what he thought the punishment would be, he did not want to speculate,
"Let us wait for the verdict. We had requested well in advance for the meeting, communicated with AIFF again and again and when all that failed only then we pulled out of Super Cup. Even during the I-League we had requested for the meeting with AIFF President. It was not a sudden decision that we took. We had given enough time to AIFF before we were forced to withdraw."
Mr Praveen said the clubs had good cause for doing what they did,
"We had informed them about the situation in advance. The team was also available to participate in the Super Cup. The only thing we needed was a date or at least a confirmation that the AIFF President was ready to meet us. We did not get that. After our matches, they gave us the confirmation, and we were ready to continue with the matches. We asked them to re-schedule our games but they said it was not possible. We asked, if Real Kashmir vs Minerva Punjab can be considered for re-scheduling, why can't our matches? They didn't have an answer for that. So I think we were right in the position we took in this regard."
The AIFF Disciplinary Committee is expected to announce its decision soon. Whether the punishment is light or heavy-handed, the I-League clubs' battle will be far from over, and Gokulam Kerala FC will play a major role to play in it.