How football in Kerala changed my annual India trip

How I experienced a changing India – through football

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As a 20-year-old football fanatic I often get asked the question, “Why is it that India has 1 and a half billion people and still can’t produce a good football team?” Given India’s excellence in cricket, one would be forgiven for thinking that the hype for football in India is as dry as the Thar Desert, but being an annual visitor of the subcontinent (and avid football fan), I feel that it is my duty to shed the light on the sheer uniqueness of football in Kerala.

Let’s get something straight, football in Kerala, like many other places in the world, is a lifestyle. People in Kerala live and breathe football.

football in Kerala
No cricket on the hoardings? (Source- Flickr/ Bobinson KB)

Making my way from Australia to Kerala every year for my yearly holiday with my family was an experience which I used to dread. Nowhere new to go, nothing new to see, and no one new to meet; it was more of a chore if anything. But it was only very recently that I discovered the true beauty of Kerala that made my experience in South India all the more interesting.

Every year my dad would ask my older brother and I to pack our football boots in our suitcases and would enrol us in a football coaching camp with the locals in the area. Being the only two there who couldn’t speak Malayalam, it was an awkward experience for my brother and 10-year-old me. Yes, we knew and loved football, but I would be lying if I said that I was happy being there. The sessions were tough, the pitch was dirt, the coaches were unrelenting, everyone was bigger than me, and of course, the language barrier was an issue too. It was football. Just not the football I knew.

Fast forward to January 2023, where a slightly more confident 18-year-old version of myself made the trip to Kerala after three years of a certain pandemic. To give you an idea of just how much things had changed, it was the first time that my brother and I were going to India without our parents. As my mum and my old man departed at an earlier date, it was then that my parents temporarily granted us the keys to the house, but more symbolically, granted us the keys to the doors of a life of adulthood and trust.

football in Kerala
Renesh and his brother before a game with the locals (Source: Supplied)

Having the compulsive need to be organised as much as possible, the night prior to our departure, I was packed and ready to go. But just as I was getting ready to call it a night, a completely random thought popped into my head. “Why don’t I pack my football boots?” With no reminder from dad, I shoved my boots into my suitcase with zero expectations as to whether I would even have the opportunity to kick a ball.

Similar to the rest of India, navigating through ‘God’s Own Country’ isn’t easy for an NRI like me. After three long years away, my grandparents’ area of Chunangad wasn’t the same. There was now a fully functioning gym, and a synthetic football pitch surrounded by a mural of great athletes from around the world. This was definitely not the Kerala that I knew. Although not as flashy or ostentatious as the gyms and sports complexes here, seeing the major change made to what I used to think was a desolate village, came as a major surprise to me.

Using my dad as translator, my brother and I were welcomed by the locals to participate in their friendly matches, and boy was I blown away.

Their ability to move the ball in and out with ease, their undeniable passion even in a friendly match, and their sheer love for the game oozed out from their every movement. It was the same football and even some of the same people from back when I was 10, but something was different. Perhaps it was the new sports complex, or the change from a dirt pitch to an artificial surface, or even a sign of my own maturity coming to fruition.

Rather than being too scared to even touch the ball as I was all those years ago, I played with heart and actively participated just as I would if I was playing in Australia. The fear of a language barrier was no more. Although, much to my grandmother’s disdain, I still couldn’t speak Malayalam, and the locals couldn’t speak English, it didn’t seem to matter at all when it came to playing on the pitch.

The love we all shared for the beautiful game united us and broke down all the walls that previously stopped me from enjoying what I loved the most.

READ MORE: Tim Cahill: Indian football will thrive with more exposure

Renesh Krishnan
Renesh Krishnan
Football Enthusiast

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