In parts of India, football still remains a bit of a mystery. There is a sense that the country may never be known as a frontier for the beautiful game, with people’s attention firmly focused on cinema, cricket and good food. Nevertheless, many European football giants count on their Indian support and the passion that supporters can provide in this part of the world, with clubs ultimately making their presence felt on a regular basis. So much so, playing pre-season games in country has become a somewhat inevitable pastime. This is obviously a lucrative business for the Europeans and an opportunity for fans to witness their favourites in action. However, until recently, this is where it stopped.
Since then, things have changed significantly and Indian football has now become a genuine work in progress, rather than a hopeless case. At the heart of this change is the south-west Indian state of Kerala. Primarily known for the southwest summer monsoon and the rains that come along, Kerala has earned a reputation for being a national centre for football, a place where the sport has been greeted by incredible enthusiasm and endless support. One of the reasons for the surge of football might be the failure of former cricket club Kochi Tuskers, who only managed one season in the country’s prime cricket competition, the IPL, before being terminated by the league for breaching the terms of its agreement.
In Kerala, football is now king. Although, the state does not boast a single I-league club, recently formed Indian Super League (ISL) competitors Kerala Blasters FC are an incredible sole representative of the state’s current football exploits. In the context of the sport itself, the Blasters were impressive enough during the inaugural season of the ISL and reached the final of the competition, losing by 1-0 against Atletico de Kolkata, after the northern Indians scored their winner in the fifth minute of injury time.
However, what was arguably more impressive than the performance on the pitch, was the performance of the supporters off it. With an average attendance of 47,427, the club had the league’s largest crowds, with figures that would be the envy of many established European football clubs. Based in Kochi, the Blasters play their home games at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and managed to draw an attendance of 61,323 for their semi-final clash with Chennaiyin, making this particular crowd the second largest of the inaugural ISL season.
During the first ISL season in history, the Blasters were managed by David James, who acted as a player-coach. The former England No.1 gained his first experiences as a manager last year, and his and the team’s record was far from impressive. In 17 games under James, Kerala actually lost more games than they won, leaving James and the team with a win ratio of around only 35%. However, due to the competition’s format, the team were able to bounce back when it mattered and eventually ended up in the final. Next season, the team will be managed by former England international Peter Taylor, who used to play as winger for the likes of Tottenham and Crystal Palace during his professional playing career. Much less successful as a manager, Taylor has still managed to gain significant experience with some rather unusual stints such as managing the Bahrain national football team or England’s U20s during their 2013 World Cup in Turkey.
During the first ISL campaign, Canadian forward Iain Hume earned a lot of plaudits for his performances in a Blasters shirt, ultimately scoring five goals and providing three assists, becoming Kerala’s most dangerous player in the process. Unfortunately for the club, Hume will be heading north to join reigning champions Atletico de Kolkata for the new season, but the Blasters have already signed a replacement. Englishman Christopher Dagnall will be heading to Kerala, after announcing his departure from English League One side Leyton Orient. The 29-year old striker comes with a reputation as a goal scorer, after accumulating more than 100 goals during his journey across England’s lower leagues. Dagnall might not be as prolific as Hume, but a new environment might do wonders and the Blasters faithful can look ahead to watching an experienced striker.
The Blasters will kick-start the new season with the league’s opening match against NorthEast United FC on 3rd October, and if the transfer activities go as planned, the fans might be treated to watching former Liverpool and Roma left-back John Arne Riise in action. It seems as though, the 34-year old Norwegian is set to join the club as a marquee player. It certainly looks like Blasters fans will witness their team genuinely competing for the title yet again. This time, Kerala might actually end up on the throne and it would be unusual to think that the Blasters are not one of the favourites for the ISL title.