A Belief in Bonhomie: The Story of Kerala and it's Blasters.

 A Belief in Bonhomie: The Story of Kerala and its Blasters.

Courtesy: Chrismon2012 via wallpapercave

The winter of 2022 was the time football maniacs across the world forgot their club rivalries. Manchester United and City supporters became temporary friends, so did Madrid and Atlético die hards, for now it was England and Spain who were playing, with the countrymen from the best clubs joining forces to bring the greatest National footballing glory to their country. Now, India doesn’t play the World Cup. So after offering their prayers to their respective Gods with the hopes someday our own boys will be there, they start supporting their personal favourites, and the two most popular countries among all being Brazil and Argentina.

Streets and cafes get blanketed with the colours of the Selección or the Selecao throughout Kolkata and this is something which becomes a competition between the footy crazy Kolkatans as to which country gets the loudest cheers and this gets routinely highlighted on traditional and social media in the build up to the tournament. However a very uncommon and highly followed battle transpired before the 2022 edition in the quaint village on the Pullavoor river in Kozhikode district of Kerala, a state which equally lives and breathes football as the Bengalis. Some Messi fanatics managed to secretly plan, construct and erect a 30 ft tall cut out of their GOAT on the river itself. This thus provoked a reaction from the Brazil faithfuls who erected and even taller cut out of Neymar and placed it just beside Messi’s. This somehow doesn’t end here as unlike in the World Cup, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who had the last laugh as his cut out emerged the tallest on the river.

Cut outs of Messi, Cristiano and Neymar on the Pullavoor river with Sunil Chhetri's cut out too in the background. (Collected from thesouthfirst)

Such is the passion and fanaticism of the beautiful people of God’s Own Country, or as some of them also say, Football’s Own Country. As much as football’s hype swept through the state, clubs from Kerala historically have not got much success in the National stage, at least compared to the other big hotspots of Kolkata, NorthEast and Hyderabad. In the 1954 edition of the reputed Rovers Cup, the Malabar District Football Association (MDFA) XI created much buzz after beating a strong Bengal Nagpur Railway FC of Kolkata, then exiting out only to the mighty Hyderabad Police under Syed Abdul Rahim even after taking a 2-0 lead within 20 minutes. That venture brought forward multiple talents out of the state such as forward J. Anthony and defender T.A. Rahman who made their moves away to the big clubs. This has been a consistent let down for the state as there never emerged a huge club from the state even though there were brilliantly organised leagues which were played by hundreds of local clubs, but none of them never really somehow made it. They probably lacked some individual visionary or a bit of luck over these years.

There was a departure from the trend of lack of big clubs when there came into the scene a certain FC Kochin. Their motto was “a new approach to the game” as they are considered to be the first professional club in the Indian footballing scene. They had sponsorships and a foreign coach. They had great training facilities and wanted to build a strong regional identity in and through their team. They managed to rope in legends in their prime I.M. Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Raman Vijayan and Carlton Chapman along with ample foreigners and other young talents from Kerala and miraculously managed to trounce Mohun Bagan 3-1 in the 1997 Durand Cup final, within one year of their existence. However, they struggled with squad depth and fitness issues when it came to the NFL (later rechristened to the I League). After mediocre performances, they got relegated in 4 seasons and never managed to make it back. Their approach obviously involved huge spendings, which eventually became financially unsustainable and the club shut their shop in 2002, just in 5 years of their existence.

FC Kochin players Carlton Chapman, left, and I M Vijayan receive the Durand Cup in 1997. (Collected from onmanorama.com)

Another promising club after FC Kochin came up by the name of Viva Kerala. They finished ninth in their first I League campaign and got relegated, came back up in next season by when their original owners could bear the increasing costs for fulfilling certain qualification criteria, hence sold the team to Chirag Computers and the team got renamed to Chirag United, who after few mediocre seasons closed down in 2012. In 1990 and 91, the Federation Cups were won by the Kerala Police team who later couldn’t replicate their success, a common theme with the institutional Police teams, with the exception of Hyderabad Police which sustained their peak for a decade under Syed Rahim, something which has been discussed at great length along with the topsy turvy story of Hyderabad FC in our Know Your Opponent on the Nizams.

Kerala back in the day were known for their tournament organisational skills. They ensured smooth proceedings of as many as nine national level tournaments in a year with adequately placed fixtures which didn’t put a toll on the players of big clubs who always held a positive opinion on the organisation in Kerala. The state is also known for its unique sevens football (seven a side tournaments) which has a massive following, and generates huge money for the players from ticket sales and betting. The Kerala state football team though has always performed well in the inter-state tournaments. This is where the local showed their prowess as the team over the years has entered the final of the Santosh trophy 15 times, winning 7 of them, the most recent being in 2022. They also won the Silver and Bronze in the National games in the last two years respectively.

Kerala won the 2022 Santosh Trophy over Bengal in penalties (Courtesy: Nitheesh, 90min.com)

Other positive aspects have been very well structured academies throughout the state which are supported by local churches and a prospering beach football scene. Throughout its history, Kerala has produced numerous talents and intriguing stories and incredible performances with the state team, but the only consistency they lacked was the presence of a club representing them on the National scene, which quite lately came by the names of Kerala Blasters FC and Gokulam Kerala FC, the former being the upcoming focus of this article. Gokulam was started by the Sree Gokulam Group who have a strong foothold in the chit fund and hospitality industries. The team won back to back I Leagues in 20/21 and 21/22. They are one of the two teams along with East Bengal who are currently fielding 4 teams of first team and reserves across both men's and women's parts of the game, 2 mens (I League + Kerala Premier League) and 2 womens (Indian Women’s League + Kerala Women’s League). Kerala Blasters was started by PVP Ventures and Master Blaster Sachin Tendulkar (hence the naming Kerala Blasters). From then they have undergone multiple ownership changes and have had hot and cold performances in their 10 year existence, which is documented hence forth along with their current tactical approach.

I. The Spring of Promise

Kerala Blasters 2014 ISL Season (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Kerala Blasters FC necessarily didn’t have the most famous squad of 2014. They did welcome David James, their manager cum goalkeeper, along with multiple popular names from the big 3 of Kolkata football such as Mehtab Hossain, Sandip Nandy, Nirmal Chettri, Ishfaq Ahmed, and also Renedy Singh from Shillong Lajong, but many of their Indian players were past their prime; but it was this experience along with the foreign heroes of Ian Hume and Penn Orji, with the disciplined and effective tactical instructions of David James that Kerala, even after multiple frustrating defeats, missed chances, poor plays, managed to scrape into the top 4 with 19 points from 14 games. 

They took a 3-0 lead against Chennaiyin in the first semifinal leg, which was the first time they won by a margin of more than 1 goal and scored more than 2 goals in a match throughout their season. However Chennaiyin staged an epic comeback to draw the scoreline to 3-3 in the second leg. However Stephen Pearson’s 117th minute goal helped the Blasters to the first ever ISL final, where they faced an even defensively adept side of Atlético de Kolkata under Antonio López Habas, and it was local Kolkata boy Mohammad Rafique who scored the injury time winner in favour of the Kolkatan outfit, thus putting an end to the underdog story of the Blasters.

The management again didn’t invest as wildly as the other clubs, as they probably understood it quite early on that they already have a huge supporter base on their side and they need not bring some European former elite to draw the numbers, but this time the investments were a bit too unconvincing for a formidable side to be developed, hence a bottom place finish is what came out of 2015. The team was filled with young and older English players and coached former England U21 manager Peter Taylor. It was opined by some that many English players came to the club to rejuvenate their careers and to get a good name through a respected Peter Taylor so that they can get a decent club in England, but Peter got sacked midway, player motivation tumbled and the season turned out to be a disaster.

Dejected KBFC players after losing out to ATK in ISL 2016 final on penalties (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Season 3 turned out to be as painfully similar to the first one, both in terms of philosophy and performance. It was yet another season of defend first and attack in the counters under another Englishman Steve Coppell who after some initial setbacks fined tuned multiple aspects throughout the season to a second place finish in not only the League but also the playoffs, again to ATK, now even more heartbreakingly in the penalties. It was nonetheless a season to be proud of especially due to the fact that as many as 6 Kerala born players were fielded in the squad, the most influential of them being forwards Mohammad Rafi and C.K. Vineeth, the latter becoming their highest scorer of the season. Such local representation in a Kerala club has always remained a rare sight due to player migration and the supporters were proud that their best talents were consistently playing in a club based in their own state. 

II. The Summer of Drought

When you sign the 6 year assistant to arguably the Greatest Manager of all time Sir Alex Ferguson, you kind of expect at least a part of the magic to your club which Fergie had done with Aberdeen and Manchester United. But the affair between René Meulensteen and Kerala Blasters ended up bring a short and sour one as he was sacked midway after only 1 win from 7 matches. It was only after that the potential of that team featuring Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown and Ian Hume (in second stint) was realised as they totalled 18 points from their remaining 11 games with none other than David James, their first ever ISL coach. The problems were evident from the beginning as proper signings were not made in the midfield, and add to that an under performing Berbatov and misfiring forwards, the team was forced to play way too many aimless long balls. James tried to figure things out, but couldn’t tame the out of control season in time. 

Kerala Blasters fans had a disappointing 18/19 ISL Season (Collected from sportskeeda)

With David James proving to be a saviour and a limited resource high output guy yet again, it was expected for the management to finally back James, but much to the agony of fans, a very laid back dry approach to the transfer market was taken ahead of the 18/19 season. In June 2016, a consortium led by industrialist Nimmagadda Prasad, Telugu film actors Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and film producer Allu Aravind purchased 80 percent stake at the club. In September 2018, Tendulkar sold his remaining stake at the club to its majority shareholders. It was the previous Muthoot group and the new lot of industrialists and actors who didn’t seem to have the boldest of visions when it came to investing heavily and signing sensibly, which led to multiple years of mediocre performances and poor selection and handling of coaches. Not only 18/19 but also 19/20 and 20/21 ended up being total disasters as the club finished 9th, 7th and 10th respectively. 

It can’t necessarily be totally blamed on the newer management as they did try to build a competitive team, but they never mastered finding balance and having somewhat decent backup in all positions and also were plagued with multiple injuries, especially in the 19/20 season under Eelco Schattorie. Sandesh Jhingan tore his hamstring and went out for the season, so did Brazilian Jairo Rodríguez, and injuries also affected the playing times of Gianni Zuiverloon and Mario Arques. On the flip side that season witnessed the revelation of three important young talents, an attacking mid Sahal Abdul Samad who made a big money move to Mohun Bagan this season, defensive mid Jeakson Singh who still forms the heart of KBFC with regular call ups to the National team and full back Jessel Carneiro who shows his prowess with Bengaluru FC this season. 

KBFC in Hero ISL 2021/22 with Indian star players Jessel, Sahal and Jeakson featuring in picture (Courtesy: ISL Media)

When I League winning coach Kibu Vicuña didn’t get retained by Mohun Bagan after Goenka’s majority share control of the club, the new Sporting Director at KBFC Karolis Skinkys and the greater management thought Kibu would be the ideal fit for a team longing for respectable performances, only for him to get sacked after a 4-0 defeat to Hyderabad FC with 16 points from 18 games, and the club eventually finishing 10th after 1 draw and 1 loss with assistant turned interim Ishfaq Ahmed who is currently impressing in the I League with Real Kashmir FC. It all seemed to be Kibu’s fault when the finger pointing by the fans and analysts started and he did deserve certain blames. His philosophy started with patient buildup with ball confident CBs and then a general high passing space finding game, which required ball confident players and accurate passers, which he got at Mohun Bagan and it worked against the relatively lower quality I League sides when compared to the ISL. 

But when he understood that he didn’t have his required profiles in his club since his defenders were fumbling passed and the midfield was filled wit mispasses, he should have tweaked the approach, but it is easier said than done when you have been coaching all your life with a certain approach. So why did he join KBFC when he saw he didn’t have the right players. Surely the team was built with his recommendations, right? Wrong. In a revelation by Khel Now the internal mess ups of the management were revealed as they didn’t agree to Kibu’s choices when he wanted to sign few players from his old club and eventually he didn’t get much say in multiple crucial signings. After poor performances, he also happened to lose the dressing room to the point that certain highly influential players became the de facto coaches as they started to conduct their own training sessions! This of course sounds wild, and probably is a bit exaggerated and was denied by Kibu after he left the job. 

III. An Autumn of Heartbreak

New Sporting Director Karolis Skinkys has helped turned tides for a struggling Blasters (Courtesy: KBFC Media)

Whatever happened on and off the field till now was not only a performance but also a PR disaster. After a Spring of Promise came a Summer of Drought marred by sub par head coaches, injuries and lack of cooperation and patience by the management. The Manjappada fandom still continued to cheer for their men in one of the highest numbers in the League but the cracks were starting to be seen. There were also reports of organised boycotts by fan groups, something which the management finally drew the line and decided to take things forward with utmost seriousness. 21/22 happened to a great transfer window. The multiple management change of names from Varun Tripuraneni and Viren d’Silva finally led to a group of individuals who started taking consistently positive decisions. 

Directed by Karolis, Chaired by Nikhil Bhardwaj and advised by Serbian Head coach Ivan Vukomanovic, the club brought in defenders such as Indian Arrows product Sanjeev Stalin, Minerva graduate Hormipam Ruviah, an experienced Harmanjot Khabra, Right winger Vincy Baretto from state rivals Gokulam, Croatian CB Leskovic, forwards Alvaro Vasquez and Jorge Pereyra Díaz and Support striker cum Finisher cum Creator cum Winger cum sometimes even defender Mr. Everywhere Mr. Everyone he himself reverend Adrian Nicolas Luna. And boy did the transfers click. For the first time ever the club seemed to find a strong identity, a united dressing room, and a marvellous coach with a friendly yet calm persona. 

Kerala Blasters FC ahead of their the semi-final clash against Jamshedpur FC in ISL 21/22 (Courtesy: ISL Media)

It seemed that the fog of misunderstanding between everyone had cleared. The group seemed jolly, cheerful, motivated and most importantly, lethal. With that renewed bon homie and a philosophy and formation probably well implemented in the ISL for the first time, the now most popular Yellow and Blue of Kerala marched through to the playoffs after gaining a 4th place finish, which could have been higher if not for a late season slump owning to a COVID-19 outbreak in the camp. After a gritty semi final win over League Shield Winners Jamshedpur FC owing to goals from Sahal and Luna, they had another ISL final heartbreak in store when a late game Sahil Tavora long ranger took the match against Hyderabad FC to the penalties where Manolo Marquez’s Nizams emerged the calmer side. What a turn around from the three season slump that was, but it again happened to be a season of so close yet so fars. 

Another season, another playoffs? Not another wild agonising exit, right? Wrong. That happened. Whatever happened, it happened. The intentions were clear, the miserable refereeing had to be stopped, so the Serbian Head Coach thought maybe sacrificing themselves through such a bold move would bring such humongous attention and scrutiny towards the referees and organisers that they would finally bring positive changes into the refereeing systems. But the Serb probably didn’t understand how things work here. And yes, it is not an opinion or a hot take to say Ivan too was in the wrong here. That quick free kick was illegal? Yes. But that should never justify stopping the match and going away, cause either way, it has now been understood that refereeing in Indian Super League will never improve, whatever happens, whatever.

KBFC’s players abandoned their playoff match against BFC after an unfair refereeing decision (Courtesy: ISL Media)

It was another beautiful season where a significant portion of the winning names were retained, a remarkable improvement over the previous few seasons where the squad was chopped like cabbage in chowmein and changed like underwear. The hot and sometimes cold performances continued, the team, even after finishing 5th, qualified to the playoffs due to the new rules of including 6 teams, and then faced Bengaluru in the semi final qualifier where the match got abandoned. The walkout brought significant fines and a 10 games suspension for Ivan, and soon the disbandment of KBFC’s women’s team was also announced. Now whether this was done to mitigate the financial strain brought from the fines or a decision which was already planned for a while due to other reasons is unknown, although the latter seems to be more likely as the costs for running the women’s team were not so high that it would have jeopardised the financial planning for the men’s team. And this brings us to the latest season where Vukomanovic’s prowess is now reaching a melodious crescendo. 

IV. A Winter of Celebration?

With one game remaining before the curtains to the first half of ISL 23/24 are closed, the mighty Elephants from Kochi stand at a proud second position with 23 points from 11 games. With defeats only to the other big names of Goa and Mumbai, and draws to Chennaiyin and surprisingly NorthEast United, they have registered wins against BFC, JFC, OFC, EB, HFC, PFC and latestly to Mumbai City FC in the return leg which somehow is taking place in the first half of the season only. Dimitros Diamantakos who is at his second season with the club is currently the joint highest scorer with Jorge Pereyra Diaz, who now plies his trade with Mumbai. They are currently the third most goal scoring and the fourth least conceding team, making them have the joint second best goal difference this season along with Mohun Bagan, Mumbai and Odisha.

KBFC’s pass map in their home game against MCFC in ISL 23/24 (Viz: @statpeekers via X)

This season till now has been as good as it could have been with one of the best performances of not only Ivan but also the team in its entire history, but injuries have crept their way in again, and again to the most crucial players in the team. Leskovic didn’t start the season and joined many games into the season, Jeakson and LB Aibanbha Dohling got injured in the same game, and while the former will make his comeback in the Super Cup, the latter is unlikely to feature in the remainder of the season. And then came the final blow from the injury crusaders as they took away the messiah Adrian Luna himself till the end of the season. It happened in the training session before the match against Punjab. All hopes seemed to be lost, and many people in social media lost their hopes for the match, if not for the entire season, but their ‘Aashan’ Vuko had a different masterclass up his sleeve. 

The high press of KBFC’s forwards and midfielders (Courtesy: ISL on JioCinema)

A common theme with Ivan’s Blasters over these years have been their astute positional awareness and defensive organisation. With 4 men at the back, 2 complete midfielders not only screening the central attacks but also having the ability to intercept and start a lethal counter attack with two complete centre forwards leading the lines who not only are accurate and strong shooters and show impressive hold up play but also never shy away from dropping down deep to track advancing opposition Center Backs and pressing hard against the goalkeeper and defenders to not give them time to think, all supported by blistering creative Indian wingers from the sides. 

KBFC’s defensive organisation and high press makes central progression highly difficult (Courtesy: ISL on JioCinema)

Yes, it was a weakened Mumbai due to head coach changes and important players like Akash Mishra, Greg Stewart and Vikram Pratap were suspended, but that should take away KBFC’s sheer dominance in the match even with 35% of possession. It is this simplicity and the complete clarity of profiles and roles that there has been no confusion in implementing the plan by the players, and it all has in no way created predictable moves, as there are ample positional rotations, especially by Adrian Luna, and a potent mixture of accurate crossing and deft inter linking tight space short passing, which led to one of the best goals of ISL last season.

Comparison of pass maps of KBFC and MCFC in their recent encounter which ended 2-0 in favour of Blasters (Viz: @statpeekers via X)

A close look at KBFC and MCFC’s pass maps in their latest encounter shows Blasters’ 4 man defense two man shield in his full effect. In the Mumbai pass map, notice the huge gap filled with red lines just above the midfield circle. The red lines signify unsuccessful passes and the wide gap tell that Mumbai were totally denied central progression which had led to the green patch stretch significantly towards the wings. Now taking a look at Kerala’s midfield circle shows that they weren’t even remote interested in only pushing through the centre, instead the green lines encircle the midfield as it they somehow managed to skip the high pressing mid field dominating MCFC side. 

How did they do it? A combination of a dropping down striker, a left or right mid, an advancing full back and one of the Center Mids easily created 4 v 3s, where they used their short passing prowess to wade through the Mumbai players and then utilised the blistering pace of Rahul K P or Mohammad Aimen to run down the wings, and/or pass it to forwards Peprah or Diamantakos who showed world class ball holding abilities, which not only generated space for the other forward but also helped the CMs Danish Farooq and Vibin Mohanan to come forward and attempt long rangers.

Touch map of Kwame Peprah reveals how Ivan instructs his forwards to drop down and act as complete forwards (Viz: @statpeekers via X)

A notable approach had been to take the ball forward as fast as possible, take a second or two to organise themselves in a fashion which would create ample pass opportunities and also have assurances in case of a counter, after which a cross to the two physical center forwards or a short passing space exploiting move is started to find the goal. When one hears of a 4-4-2 they imagine a big smiled half bald Englishman asking its men to launch the ball forward and then pray to their respective Gods, but this balding white shirt smart trousered Serb seems to have modernised the class flat 4-4-2 and brought elements of relationism, positional play and skill to suit the needs to the team. A quick skim of numbers reveal that goalkeeper Sachin Suresh has been an absolute revelation. With long term hero Prabhsukhan Gill getting taken away by East Bengal, reserve keeper and local 22 year old Thrissur boy Sachin stepped up massively, and if things go well, he might even become a club legend by serving his club for many years to come, just like his inspiration Marc Andre Ter Stegen.

Milos Drincic and Pritam Kotal have been able defenders for KBFC this season with 80%+ accuracy in defensive actions (Viz: @statpeekers via X)

Sachin has already saved two penalties, acted as a sweeper 6 times which helped amend crucial errors from the defense, and also made 11 high claims, the last two stats putting him in the 81st percentile among other keepers in the league. When it comes to defenders, the two former Mohun Bagan heroes Pritam Kotal and Prabir Das are here to make their redemptions. These two are the highest per 90 interceptors in the club, and have stayed mostly consistent, at least in ISL standards when it comes to positioning and clearing away dangers reasonably. Another superb foreign signing, something the club seems to have perfected now due to a multitude of factors, has been Milos Drincic. The absolute physical monster combined with a knack for venturing forward by staying in the shadows has shown his passion and love for the incredible support from the stands by being a leader of the defense. Lately after Luna’s loss, Pritam has been positioned at right back, with Milos and Leskovic at the centre, while Naocha Singh impresses at LB after Aiban’s injury. 

While Adrian Luna is someone irreplaceable, academy graduates like Vibin Mohanan and Mohammad Aimen and Azhar have stepped up and combined to fill in the big shoes of the injured Uruguayan (Viz: @statpeekers via X)

It has also been the season for academy graduates Vibin Mohanan and identical twins Aimen and Azhar. Football does have a sense of humour sometimes. With Sahal Abdul Samad making his huge move to Bagan, Aimen has aptly replaced Sahal’s duties and Vibin’s elite distribution skills, combined with Japanese wingers cum midfielder Daisuke Sakai (the closest replacement to Luna as of now) and Danish Farooq’s omnipresence promises to somewhat manage their maestro’s unavailability. Kerala’s performance analysis cannot be completed with a touch on their one biggest problem, which has not became a problem yet, which is their overperformance. From an xG (Expected Goals is a computer model which analyses the probability of a goal being scored from a chance created) of 12.3 they have scored 16 goals, while from an Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 11.9, they have conceded only 10 goals.

Now such statistics are not something to be prioritised over the viewing experience and observations, and only taken as guide for analysis, but it does highlight a trend that Kerala have produced many goals from relatively lesser likely situations, something which has to be commended but also can become troublesome if those do not get converted in their upcoming games in the second half. It mostly has to be attributed to their finesse-full forwards Diamantakos, Luna and Peprah, the latter who now seems to be figuring out the goalscoring aspect of his role. But it has been a team who have been brilliant at intercepting, launching smart counter attacks and building up in a unique fashion with good displays of chemistry. 

The Manjappada paying tribute to the flood victims of Kerala (Courtesy: ISL Media)

It has been a very well constructed team with ample backup in most positions, something many teams are suffering from even after spending heavily. After two seasons of near misses, this one shows promise of finally rewarding them with silverware, more so because their injuries have come at a time ISL comes to a halt and the January market opens, thus there’s ample opportunity to bring in reinforcements in necessary positions. “It is not a pressure, but a pleasure to play in front of the fans” is what Ivan Vukomanovic famously said in the build up to the 21/22 ISL final. Not only him but the greater Indian football fraternity has been in awe of the magnificent sea of yellow created by 25 to 30 thousand fans per match every home game at the JLN stadium in Kochi. Fans forever longed for a high performing strong team from their home state of Kerala and have got that through Kerala Blasters.

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