It was no ordinary year in the annals of Malabar history. The monsoons of 1921 had left a momentous imprint in the region that would, in due course, form the soul of the post-independent Malappuram district in northern Kerala.
At the heart stood a battalion of armed men, specially designed by the British empire to suppress protracted unrest against its whimsical operations. The 1921 revolt led by the local Muslims — the dominant populace of the region — and backward Hindu communities against their elite landlords and British authorities culminated with rampant bloodshed and tattered hopes.
The Malabar Special Police’s (MSP) role in suppressing the common folk then was immense. A raging hatred for them was, perhaps, undeniable.
However, the MSP, over the years, has managed to carve a fresh perception in the public sphere.
A century has rolled over since MSP’s formal establishment on September 30, 1921. The ghosts of yesteryear have receded into the backdrop as it spread love with the beautiful game.
The Malabar revolts of 1921 — which were also inspired by the Khilafat freedom movement backed by M. K. Gandhi — worsened the ties between locals and the British administrators.
A sporting tether could be the only balm of rapprochement. The British brought football to north Malabar in the mid-19th century, and gradually, the customary football games of the MSP in Malappuram involved locals who would fill in the XIs and play along. The sport swiftly grew on while games like volleyball and hockey wilted after a brief presence.
It wasn’t long before Malappuram produced its own set of stars. The men learned the game, polished the art, and excelled. Head over to the Kottapadi Stadium in the heart of the town and tales from the bygone chime in.
Football’s relative simplicity and adaptability boosted its popularity. Its initial heroes took on the booted Englishmen barefoot and trained with softballs rolled out from vaazhapola (pseudostem of a banana plant).
“Involving the locals to play football and learn the sport was a crucial matter of sustenance for the British. The people were invited to see and with time the best players were chosen to play on the same team. Players like Irumban Moideen Kutty came up through this. He went on to represent the Royal Indian Air Force before moving to Pakistan after 1947. He ended his career as a legendary figure in the game there,” says M. M. Jaffer Khan, a journalist from Areacode, who has traced the history of Malappuram football.
Various MSP football camps were held across the district — from Nilambur and Areacode to Pandikkad and Melmuri. By the early 1950s, Malappuram had nurtured its inherited gift in different ways. The game rebranded itself to sevens football — a different world, with its makeshift turfs and stands. The phenomenon of ‘monsoon’ football also emerged in Mankada — a footballing stronghold — with tournaments running through during the rains.
Heroes emerged but faded away as the lack of a professional outlook hurt the progress. The stories of ‘goal-machine’ Gomez D’Cruz, “International” Moitheenkutty, Malappuram Asees, and others have slipped from public memory.
Kerala’s Santosh Trophy win in 1973-74 was perhaps the shot in the arm. However, another decade or so passed before the Kerala Police and MSP strapped their boots to lead the charge.
Members of the victorious Kerala Police team are a picture of happiness, with the glittering Federation Cup and mementoes, after beating Salgaocar 2-1 in the final at Thrissoor on April 29, 1990. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES – The Hindu
Former India defender and MSP commandant U. Sharaf Ali has witnessed the ebbs and flows of Kerala football from close quarters. His professional playing days coincided with a period that initiated a proper system to elevate football in the state. Sharaf Ali said the necessity for a facelift for the MSP as well as the Kerala Police team was a crucial factor in realising a change.
“A debacle for our side during the 1982 All India Police Games on our home turf prompted the then chief minister, K. Karunakaran, to initiate a new direction. A change was inevitable, and he handed over the responsibility to M. K. Joseph sir (former DGP) to shake up the Kerala Police teams across all sports. In 1984, we saw the first set of 100 special recruits coming in across sports through this move,” Ali explains.
Several young talents came into the system, including a 17-year-old I. M. Vijayan, who caught the eye of Joseph with his dazzling feet, forcing him in through a special recruitment process.
“Within two years, the Kerala Police team became the best in the state, and in another four years or so, we became a force to reckon with in India. And this came across disciplines. in football, volleyball, and basketball. In fact, we became the first police team in the country to win the Federation Cup and the All-India Police championship in all these disciplines,” says Ali. The stellar lineup included Ali, K. T. Chacko, V. P. Sathyan, P. P. Thobias, I. M. Vijayan, Kurikesh Mathew, and C. V. Pappachan among a host of others who benefited from the system. The icing on the cake came in the early 1990s when the Kerala Police team won the Federation Cup in 1990 and 1991. In the next two seasons, Kerala lifted the Santosh Trophy. It also finished runner-up in the 1993-94 season with a sustained presence from the police team.
Cracks in the system and a dry spell
The police teams had a few more years of good fortune before the wise men in the higher authority began to leave. The sporting systems began to weaken, and the recruited athletes received minimal payment and status. It wasn’t surprising to see a string of its best stars including Vijayan, Sharaf Ali and Sathyan leave for better offers from professional clubs in Calcutta and elsewhere.
Ali says a change in government policy in the late 1990s took a toll on the welfare of the players and the police team culture, too, was soon pushed to a state of redundancy. “During our time, we were retained after being offered better posts in Kerala Police. All of us rejected several offers from clubs outside the state. But soon tussles began regarding seniority between the regular officers and those who came in through the sports quota,” he says.
“The government narrowed down any out-of-turn promotions, and special recruitments became a rarity. Head Constable posts were the best offered to the sports quota recruits. The quality naturally took a hit then. The rise of a professional approach to the game also made good players move out and earn better deals that were more important than a job,” Ali adds.
Ali, who hails from a football-mad corner of Malappuram football in Areacode, admits that the ‘Mecca of Kerala football’ deserves more spotlight to churn out fresh talent. Systemic failures meant the next set of stars were always in the offing but never delivered.
The MSP football academy, revamped in 2017, has put its hands up for another revolution. In its brief run, the academy, which began under the supervision of former Kerala captain Kurikesh Mathew, rolled out a fresh pool of players from the district that have bagged ISL and I-League contracts. Ashique Kuruniyan (Bengaluru FC), Jishnu Balakrishnan (Kerala Blasters), Mohammed Jassim (Gokulam Kerala), and Arjun Jayaraj (Kerala United FC) have fruited from a focused programme.
The horizon is slowly but surely widening to better avenues. In an inspiring lead-up to its centenary celebrations, the directors of Kerala Police and MSP in coordination with the LDF government have roped in Vijayan to lead the charge.
Malappuram set for Kerala Police Football Academy
Vijayan is returning to the MSP headquarters in Malappuram with a huge responsibility on his shoulders. The 52-year-old has been named the first director of the Kerala Police Football Academy in Malappuram.
Footballers practise under floodlights at the Kottappadi Football Stadium in Malappuram on Saturday. The State senior football tournament will begin at the stadium on Sunday.
The selection committee of the academy will have Vijayan’s old mates — Sharaf Ali, Kurikesh Mathew, Chacko, and Pappachan. “We are waiting for the academy to start rolling. Vijayan will have our aid in setting this up. Obviously, MSP has done a lot of the groundwork already and if this gets enough support from the government, I am certain that it’ll become a model academy in India in no time,” an optimistic Ali says. Kerala Police and MSP have been an integral part of the legendary striker’s initial years and Vijayan is fully aware of the job at hand.
“There’s no better place to work and play other than Malappuram. This is the Mecca of football. Ask any policeman or player attached with Kerala police and they’ll say that MSP is the place to be. It’s because football rules every heart here,” says Vijayan.
Vijayan is thankful to the authorities for bringing the academy to Malappuram. “This has been a thoughtful move led by the senior police authorities. They know what it means for the game and this place. We also have the MSP school to take care of the education of the children and infrastructure-wise, we will ensure the best facilities,” Vijayan affirms.
The academy is planning to launch a diligent selection process through the state with four centres. With COVID-19 landing a hard blow in its second wave in the state, Vijayan expects another few months to pass before the first batch is brought in. About 75 youngsters will make the inaugural batch.
Vijayan’s objective is simple: “It will be a matter of pride if some of them go on to represent India from the Kerala Police Academy (smiles) and that’s what I want to create, the next set of Indian stars. We have enough people from here to oversee the training system. To raise the standards even further, we need to bring in foreign coaches later. This will involve a lot of money and that’s what it takes to achieve our goal here,” he says.
What’s next for Malappuram football
The pandemic has sheathed playing fields and turf parks for over a year and the sporting scene remains hazy in Malappuram.
However, Vijayan’s arrival at the stroke of MSP’s centenary has been among the several positive turnouts this year. Malappuram’s dilapidated stadiums have also been promised a new lease of life, by homegrown sports minister V. Abdurahiman.
The Payyanad Stadium, in a sleepy nook of Manjeri, will hold the Santosh Trophy finals. The stadium had hosted the group stages of the 2013-14 Federation Cup with huge fanfare as nearly 20,000 spectators turned up for every fixture — a stark contrast to the turn-out in Kochi for the final stages.
“The (Payyanad) crowd has been brilliant. The people here enjoy good football, cheering for both teams, sitting for two games on the trot — so encouraging. The stadium has a beautiful setting, and it would be nice to bring the national football team to fans like these,” India’s talismanic striker Sunil Chettri had said back then.
With the stars aligning, can Malappuram football see a sustained spell of dominance? We wait.