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I-League Champions Gokulam Kerala’s Unprecedented Double in Indian Football

The I-League title race this year was a football chronicler’s dream come true -- with a three-way tussle decided in the last 10 minutes of the season. For Gokulam Kerala FC, the reigning Indian Women’s League champions, the I-League victory is a culmination of a consistent and professional effort of pushing the envelope in Indian football in the past few seasons.
Gokulam Kerala FC players with the I-league trophy

Gokulam Kerala FC players celebrate with the I-League trophy at the podium in Kolkata on Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Breathe in, breathe out. 24 hours have gone by. The party is over. In fact, it has perhaps just begun. Play the tape back frame by frame. 

For 24 minutes yesterday the last game week of the I-League season, the title was going to Churchill after a long hiatus away from Goa. In the 24th, inevitably, Bidhyashagar Singh — the reject who has become a standout — scored for TRAU, and suddenly the tide had shifted, the trophy heading from the VYBK to the KBK (literal distance 10 km) and stayed within TRAU’s grasp for 46 more agonising minutes. 

And then came Sharif Mukhammad’s freekick. On the edge of the box, he lifted it, curled it, gently chipped it, into the top left corner. Game on. Except not really, because for the next four minutes, as Gokulam and TRAU remained locked, Churchill were winning the title. They had raced ahead to a 3-0 lead but had, amazingly somehow, thrown it away. Punjab were pressing them at 3-2. If they could calm down and hold the lead the title could still be theirs.

But no wait. Really, wait. This is the kind of stuff Eduardo Galeano and John le Carre would’ve both salivated over. Narratively, this was gold. 74 minutes at the KBK, four minutes after Sharif’s natkhat freekick, Emil Benny, the lanky, long haired young boy from Wayanad put the ball in the net. Gokulam were ahead. Goddamn the home of football, the trophy was going to Kozhikode.

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What really does the phrase ‘home of football’ mean? Where does the heartbeat of this fractured country’s football lie? Manipur hadn’t won an I-League title in its history. They hadn’t won an NFL either. In fact, no club from Manipur has ever won honours on the national stage at this level (sure TRAU and NEROCA both won the 2nd division to qualify, but we are talking top division). The AIFF’s elite academies are based in Goa. If Kolkata dominated Indian football for the first 50 years of the country’s existence, Goa took over in the new millennium. And yet, it had been eight years since that small state had laid its hands on the I-League. And then, there was Kerala. What is the ‘home of football’ in this country? Those 46 minutes didn’t answer any of these questions. It just delivered a football trophy to a state that has over the past decade been starved of one. 

“It all boils down to club culture, not just the players, but the management, the staff, everyone united, the way things work…  it all plays a role in how seasons pan out,” Vincenzo Alberto Annese says in a slow drawl. This is at breakfast the next day, after a night that — presumably — was as high tempo as the game that preceded it. 

That is the general feeling across the board. Gokulam Kerala are the best run club in the league. Sure, new entrants Roundglass have splurged the money and upped the professionalism ante, old hands Real Kashmir have a reputation of being straight cut and professional, but Gokulam are the ones who have set the new standard here. 

This after all is a team that won the Indian Women’s League before it won the I-League. And did so having invested in young players and treating them like professionals while the rest of the Indian football (those slick franchises included) deigned to do so. Annesse was a novice to the Indian way but Gokulam were changing it all anyway. 

This title isn’t a fluke either. They won the 2019 Durand Cup in Kolkata. Went into last season as favourites, but ended up nowhere. The archives of this website are filled with stories about Gokulam being poised for something special — but inevitably always failing to do so. For once though, there was something right. 

They went down by two to Punjab and rallied back to get a win. Promptly, instead of picking up momentum they went down 2-0 to Aizawl. Every time they lost a game, they won the next one. Conversely, everytime they hit a vein of form, they promptly dropped points. In the second phase though they decided to get practical. They thrashed Churchill, burst their superiority bubble — literally taught everyone that invincibility means nothing here. Huffed and puffed against Kashmir, and rode Denis Antwi brilliance against Mohammedan. And yesterday, for 74 straight minutes they looked buried if not dead. 

Get off the practicality train. Hop on to superstition. Carriage one: Djair de Miranda Garcia, the strength and conditioning coach who has spent over a decade in Indian football. Garcia has now won the I-League twice. He thanked God the first time he won it with Mohun Bagan and yesterday in the middle of the celebrations as the camera cut away to the players, he took Annesse by the hand and guided him to the centre of the pitch. There they stood, a strange couple, a young swashbuckling routinely handsome Italian man in tight jeans and an older, bald hunched over Brazilian in a tracksuit. They hugged. Then Garcia turned to a camera and dedicated his title to God, again.  

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Carriage 2: Deepak Devrani. In the words of Pushpender Kundu, Sudeva Delhi FC’s assistant coach, “Isko I-League samajh aa gaya hai”. Devrani has now won the title thrice. He was with TRAU last season and left them to join Gokulam because he ‘wanted to play for the championship’. Dempo is the most successful club in the history of the I-League. They won three titles. Devrani has three now. 

Where does everyone go from here? First to Kozhikode. Six months hopping between bio bubbles, the players have been isolated from the world. Those fans, those magnificent fans of Kerala demanded these first time title winners be brought in front of them. And so, the first stop for everyone is Kozhikode. Then perhaps this team will be rebuilt. Shaken, stirred to do something no one has ever managed to do. Defend the I-League crown. 

Home of football? No one knows. Right now, Kerala is the home of the I-League. 

End of season Awards

MVP: Komron Tursonov. Forget the goals the assists and the brilliance. Think about what he inspired in his teammates at this small club from Manipur. TRAU had no business competing for the I-League title on the final day of the season. This is team low on funds. This sprightly Tajik inspired them to so much more. And when he left, they looked shaken.

Greatest rumour generator: Pick between Bidyashagar and David Robertson. Bidya is obviously heading to the ISL (or is he?). The form he is in, he’ll score from wherever, whenever, and whatever. Good thing he’s out of the bubble now. Robertson is heading back to Scotland (or is he?) and Kashmir will be given a fresh start. 

Smoothest operator: Denis Antwi with shades on

Most consistent performer: False positives. Every team (barring Indian Arrows) ended up with at least one player testing positive for Covid-19. Each of those tests was a false positive. Talk about an even playing field.

Best celebration: Score goal. Will do push ups

Best goal: Pedro Manzi marking his return to Indian football with a superb 50-yard screamer over Real Kashmir’s Mithun Samanta, who ,somehow, has conceded some of the best goals you’ll see in the I-League this season. 

Best game: Gokulam Kerala vs Roundglass Punjab 

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