Glory Days: Gokulam Kerala wins back-to-back I-League titles.

Just days after his record I-League victory thanks to a grueling schedule, Gokulam Kerala kicked off his maiden AFC Cup campaign. “When we enter a tournament, we want to win it. And the AFC Cup is not an opportunity that comes every year. We want to go to the next round,” says club president VC Praveen. be no easy task in a group consisting of ATK heavyweights Mohun Bagan, Bashundhara Kings (Bangladesh) and Maziya S&RC (Maldives), it’s hard to put anything beyond theMalabariansof realization.

The celebrations were cut short when Gokulam completely took down ATK Mohun Bagan in the opener in his own backyard. A remarkable feat in what is quickly becoming the norm for the Kozhikode club. It was just among a series of sweet firsts for Gokulam over the past three years, not only for the men’s team but also for his dominating women’s team. Gokulam has now won the First Division Women’s League (Indian Women’s League 2020), Durand Cup 2019, two I-League titles and the Second Division title. The successive victories of the men’s team in the league are a first in the 15-year history of the I-League. The team also broke the competition’s record for the most matches without defeat (21).

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“It is a moment of great achievement that Gokulam Kerala can win the I-League titles back to back in Bengal. It is considered an extremely difficult task to win a title by beating a Bengal team in Bengal,” said the legendary IM Vijayan after theMalabarianscreated history. The former India captain, who earned the nickname ‘Blackbuck’ for his sublime skills which mesmerized Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans during his playing days, has high hopes from the youngster. team that has made revolutionary progress in Indian football.

“I’m proud that the boys did it for the second time in a row,” Vijayan said with a hint of pride.

For its young Italian head coach, Vincenzo Alberto Annese, the second title was the result of the efficient preparation of talents selected from the club’s backcountry in Kozhikode and the good selection of foreigners that the limited budget allowed. The Italian gaffer had managed to create the synergy, creating an inexorable unit that was technically solid and tactically impressive. Even the rigors and restrictions of an extended bio-bubble could not deter its effectiveness.

Pioneers: Gokulam Kerala won the last edition of the Women’s I-League held in 2020. | Photo credit: K. RAGESH

“I am an emotional man and we like to stay together as a team. The bio-bubble helped us make a better emotional connection,” Annese says of Gokulam’s triumph. “We turned out to be a very solid group with crazy personalities. We stayed as a family and this fantastic locker room atmosphere helped us achieve great success.

Annese says the success of Gokulam Kerala proves that Indian football has the right potential to reach a high level of excellence. “I wanted to show Indian football different things. We developed a different style of play, a kind of attacking football that the country hasn’t seen for many years,” he says of the side who scored 44 goals and conceded just 15. in 18 matches in the country’s oldest domestic league. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we have really developed a particular mentality to attack and maintain dominance in the attacking third.”

The women’s team also won their second straight IWL. They also have a men’s reserve squad which grooms future first-team members, with seven players promoted to the first-team this year. Gokulam has 13 Kerala-born players in the men’s first team, exactly half the squad’s number, three more than last season.

READ: Gokulam Kerala beat Sethu FC to retain Indian Women’s League title

Gokulam, which has been around for just over five years, sets the standard for a model football club in India at a time when most Indian Super League (ISL) clubs don’t even have a women’s team.

Big dreams: “We want to score a hat-trick and become the first club to get promoted to ISL,” says club chairman VC Praveen. | Photo credit: special arrangement

“We arrived as a corporate team. We have a company, and we have companies, where there are also female staff and colleagues. So if there is no disparity in our setup, why shouldn’t we take advantage of it in football as well,” Praveen says of the club’s line-up. “We are here for the passion of football, not because they are men or women. If there is an opportunity, we will take it. That makes it complete. For other clubs, forget the ISL and some teams of I-League, for the rest, the pockets are not so deep for a women’s club. In the end, even the smallest or the biggest clubs do not receive anything in return for the investment. So they think why still a few lakhs spent on football?

Praveen is hoping for a rise in the popularity of women’s football, which could encourage more ISL and I-League clubs to invest in women’s football. As Gokulam rolls his competition in the IWL (ten wins from 10, 63 goals and three conceded), Praveen points to the lack of top-flight teams in the league compared to the hotly contested I-League.

“In a league with 10 or 11 teams, there are only two or three teams that have really good players. In the other teams, you will have two or three good players in the XI. So it will take at least four or five years for the teams to have more talent and for the league to be more competitive. I was telling the league if the men can have five or six foreigners and play four in the XI, why not the same in the women’s league too…”, he asks.

Team spirit: “I am an emotional man and we like to stay together as a team. The bio-bubble helped us make a better emotional connection,” coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese says of the team’s secret behind the second I-League title. | Photo credit: special arrangement

Only Gokulam has fulfilled its quota of two foreign players, while Sethu and Sirvodem have one each, and the other nine teams have failed to sign a foreign player.

“At the end of the day, it’s an I league for women. You sign two foreigners and play one. Whoever has big pockets, signs the cream of Indian players. So probably if we, Sethu FC and Kickstart FC sign six or seven players, the whole Indian national team will be taken by those three. Then there is KRYPSA from Manipur. Only four out of five teams take the right players, the rest of the teams are made up of local players. That’s why there is a disparity and big goal margins between the teams,” adds Praveen.

The IWL returned in April after a two-year hiatus as the AIFF did not schedule the league last year. The 12-team league takes place over 42 days in Bhubaneswar, while the I-League takes place over four months and the ISL over five months.

Praveen calls on the AIFF to do its part to help women’s football grow. “They should take the league very seriously. It shouldn’t be for a namesake. Sometimes we feel like the Federation does it for fun. They still have the league at the end of the year. We won the IWL in 2020 and last year we didn’t have the championship. We wanted to take the AFC Women’s Club Championship seriously, but the Indian women’s team held friendly matches on tour in some countries. So we didn’t even have the players training with us for a week or 10 days. It was barely four days. The same thing happened to the IWL this year too. The Indian players just arrived and joined the bubble three days before the start of the IWL,” he says.

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While explaining Gokulam’s dominance, Praveen talks about the “pride and passion” of everyone involved at the club. With the AIFF’s mandate to plot a promotion to the ISL for next season’s I-League winner, you wouldn’t let him pass theMalabariansdo the hat-trick and add another first to his honor list.

“We want to score a hat-trick and become the first club to get promoted to ISL,” says Praveen.