It was the ultimate underdog story, much before Hollywood writers even coined the term. Before December 1973, Kerala was nothing but a footnote on the country’s footballing map. One match and three goals later, they were the best in all the land.
Not many punters would have placed their money on the state’s chances in that year’s edition of Santosh Trophy despite the fact that they enjoyed home advantage. The team was described by numerous commentators as ‘average’ and was a mix of a few experienced, yet injured, veterans and several unproven stand-ins. “Nobody gave us a chance back then as half our team were injured. As the tournament progressed, the injuries kept accumulating. At one point, we had up to nine members of the first-team on the sick-list and we went into the final with our third-choice keeper in goal. Both Victor Manjila and KP Sethumadhavan were injured,” said T A Jaffer, who was the vice-captain of the team.
The way in which they began the tournament did not inspire much confidence either. A drab 1-1 draw against Delhi, who they were expected to beat, was followed by a 3-1 win over Manipur team making their bow in the tournament. This left them needing a win against group favourites Karnataka to qualify. It was at this point that the team, that had been billed ‘average’ before the tournament transformed into one who would soon be called champions.
The rejuvenated hosts trounced Karnataka by four goals to one and then bettered that performance by blanking a young Andhra Pradesh team who, up until that point were the tournament’s top scorers, by 5 goals without reply.
That emphatic performance was followed by two subdued semifinals where they edged formidable Maharashtra over two legs. The hosts sneaked a 2-1 win in the first leg and then held on for a 1-1 draw in the second. This earned them the opportunity to take on Railway in the final.
The railwaymen, meanwhile, were scripting their own fairytale story, having got past two of the tournament favourites in the knockout stages while playing an attractive passing game. They toppled Punjab in the quarters and had then gone on knock out defending champions Bengal, who had not tasted defeat in the tournament for a couple of years. But in the final, they were beaten at their own game of short passing and dribbling by a Kerala-side who were cheered on by more than 50,000 home supporters.
Captain Mani drew the first blood in the 30th minute before putting Kerala further ahead in the 58th minute when he struck home the rebound after the railways goalkeeper had parried his header. The railwaymen pulled one back nine minutes later but Mani scored again in the 73rd minute to put the game beyond all doubt. The game eventually finished 3-2 and Kerala had won their first-ever Santosh Trophy.
The state enjoyed another golden age in the 90s with a once-in-a-lifetime generation of players like IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Anchery and VP Sathyan taking Kerala to the forefront of national football once again. But that generation, and the successes that followed, may never have been, if it were not for Mani and his merry men.