KOCHI: The year is 2012 and Kerala football is seemingly on its deathbed — eight years had passed since the state had last lifted the Santosh Trophy and the Indian national team which emerged victorious in dramatic fashion at the Nehru Cup did not feature a single Kerala footballer.
Indian football was a different world when The New Indian Express (TNIE) launched its football tournament TNIE GOAL as a platform for Kerala college teams. The ISL and Kerala Blasters were almost three years away and the FIFA U-17 World Cup would only be awarded to India two years later.
The tournament has grown bigger and better with each passing edition and so has Kerala football — a renaissance of sorts powered by ISL and U-17 World Cup. At the heart of this has been a number of players who have used GOAL as a stepping stone from amateur football to professional football.
“There was no better time than then to launch TNIE GOAL,” says former India U-19 coach VA Narayana Menon. “College teams hardly had a tournament to look forward to and after the completion of university competitions by November, football teams used to be disbanded. With GOAL taking the January-February slot in the calendar for the past seven years, the players are now trained throughout the year which improves them as footballers and helps the state team as well as the Kerala clubs,” says Menon who guided Sree Kerala Varma College, Thrissur to title triumphs in GOAL 2012 and 2013.
CV Pappachan, former India captain who represented Kerala Varma and Calicut University during his college days, says it was the death of college-level tournaments which led to a slump in Kerala football. “We played in plenty of tournaments and at the end of our college life, we were good enough to cut it out as professionals,” he says. “Now, there is a disconnect between school or college level football and the professional circuit.”
One player to have used GOAL to propel him to bigger things is Joby Justin, who appeared for MG College, Thiruvananthapuram in the first two editions of GOAL. He now proudly wears the red and gold of Kolkata giants East Bengal in the I-League.
It has been a dream come true for Joby who scored his first I-League goal earlier this month, a diving header against Churchill Brothers. “I’m enjoying my game. I feel lucky to play for such a big club like East Bengal so early in my career,” said the young forward.
Joby has started three games and was on the bench for the Kolkata Derby last week. “People have started to recognise me — in Kolkata as well as back home. I want to establish myself as a regular here,” he says.
Joby had been part of GOAL in its early stage, but the tournament did leave a good impression. “It was only its start, but it was conducted very professionally and we were treated really well,” reminisces Joby, who helped Kerala reach the last-four of the Santosh Trophy last year.
It’s not just the future that is showcased at GOAL. Take the case of MES College, Mampad’s Afdal VK who grabbed the first hat-trick of the latest edition. He will turn up at GOAL after having starred for Kerala in the Santosh Trophy qualifiers. He had only last week scored a brace against Andhra Pradesh in the zonal qualifiers in Bengaluru. “On my way back from Bengaluru, I had called my coach to confirm the date of our opening match so that I can recover in time. Like Santosh Trophy is a prestigious event at the senior level, GOAL is the best tournament a college student can hope to play,” he said.
“You get the best ground, infrastructure and exposure at this tournament. So, I wanted to play in it,” said Afdal who was part of the MES side that made it to the semifinals of GOAL 2015 in Malappuram. Afdal, the top scorer at the All-India Inter-University Football Championship held last month, is hoping another good outing at GOAL will help him land a professional contract.
And it’s not a far-fetched idea. Goal has come under the radar of the ISL scouts with three players who starred in the 2017 edition — Ajith Sivan, Sahal Abdul Samad and Jishnu Balakrishnan — being picked up by Kerala Blasters this year.
Smells like teen spirit
The seventh edition of TNIE GOAL returned to Kochi and is being held at the historic Maharaja’s College Stadium from January 23 to February 4...
TNIE GOAL has unearthed quite a few gems over the course of the last six years. Prominent among them is Jijo Joseph who went on to win the Kerala Football Association’s prestigious Footballer of the Year award.
Another of the stars in that All-Stars Team is the current Kerala captain Rahul V Raj. “Winning the first two editions of GOAL is something I cherish a lot,” Rahul said.
Another GOAL product who is a mainstay in the Kerala side is Midhun V, who won the best goalkeeper award in 2013 playing for SN College, Kannur. Midhun kept goal for Kerala as they reached the semis of Santosh Trophy last season with a squad in which 10 of the 20 had graced GOAL.
Three of GOAL products are also part of the Kerala Blasters set up. Ajith Sivan, Sahal Abdul Samad, and Jishnu Balakrishnan were picked up the Kochi-based ISL franchise ahead of the new season. Ajith had guided Nirmala College to the title catching the attention of Blasters scouts.
24 college teams from across the state are competing in the knockout tournament. The semifinals are scheduled for February 2 while the final is slated for February 4.
With `2 lakh for the champions and `1 lakh for the runners-up, TNIE GOAL is the tournament offering the biggest prize money in Kerala.
Individual brilliance will also be recognised with awards for Best Player, Best Striker, Best Midfielder, Best Defender, Best Goalkeeper and Top Scorer.
All players will be treated like pros, with match fees, playing kits and travel allowances.