“I have brought a special guest with me,” G Ravindran Nair, goalkeeper of the 1973 team, announced to the expectant crowd. A collective gasp of surprise went up in the air when he reached inside his bag and fished out a battered football.
“This is the ball that ruffled the Railways’ net thrice 40 years ago thanks to our Mani,” he said. A surprised TKS Mani walked up to his teammate and took the ball from him. “So, this is where it went after the game,” he said patting Ravindran on the back.
It was an afternoon to remember for the members of the 1973 Santosh Trophy winning Kerala team as they relived the match that four decades ago had sparked wild celebrations across the entire state.
The reunion was held as a precursor to Goal 2013, the inter-collegiate football tournament being organised by The New Indian Express. The team was felicitated at the inaugural function of the tournament. Most of the players were meeting their teammates after nearly two decades.
“A similar reunion was held on the 20th anniversary of our victory in 1993. Most of us have not come across each other since then,” said C C Jacob, who after retirement, went on to coach the Kerala team and was technical director when it regained the Santosh Trophy in 2001.
The players were overwhelmed as they were reintroduced to the older versions of their once sprightly team-mates. Captain Mani, as he did throughout that trophy-winning campaign, was the first to arrive at the venue.
And as each of his teammates arrived, Mani got up to greet them, a mix of pleasure and surprise, and sometimes sadness, evident on his face.
Wingback C C Jacob soon arrived accompanied by a number of his teammates, including winger A Najimuddin, who was instantly spotted by his captain. Najimuddin shared a special connection with Mani - it was his pass that had led to Mani’s winning goal. He walked up to each of his teammates, including central defender C Chekku, who is now unable to walk without the assistance of crutches.
“He was the rock in our team’s backline. It is sad seeing him like this,” he said. His musings were disrupted, however, by a loud cheer that accompanied the arrival of wingback K P Ratnakaran. “He missed the reunion 20 years ago, so most of us are seeing him after 40 years,” said C C Jacob, explaining the commotion. The pleasantries were disrupted once again when team coach Olympian Simon Sunder Raj walked in, accompanied by assistant coach K K Gopalakrishnan.
After conversing with his wards, he took a moment to stand aside and survey the gathering, just as keen as he had surveyed their numerous training sessions, all those years ago.
“I am used to seeing them as smart, fit youngsters. It is a bit hard to take it in, seeing them as fathers and grandfathers,” he said. The venue was soon abuzz as the team began catching up from where they had last left off. Many had stories to tell, while some had a few complaints to air. “We were all public sector workers, so most of us were unable to benefit from our achievement. We were not recognized by the state government. Even now, it is not too late to give us an incentive,” said midfielder P P Abdul Hameed. “We were promised many things before the tournament as nobody gave us a chance to win it. But after we went ahead and won it, all these offers vanished,” assistant coach Gopalakrishnan chimed in. The gathering also took time out to remember those who were no longer there amongst them - manager P P Jose, assistant coach A V Devassykutty and players John J John and R K Perumal- who have all passed away. As the reunion neared the conclusion, the team decided to pose for a photograph. Someone proposed that they pose exactly as they had in the team photo 40 years ago, and soon the scramble was on to find out who stood where.
Before they left for the venue where they were to be felicitated, many of the team were left hoping that reunions like this would happen more often.
“And they should because we deserve it. Everything that Kerala achieved in football since, had the touch of the 1973 team, be it the golden periods of the 1990s or the twin Santosh trophy victories in early 2000s,” said Joseph.