There are two ways to become part of the wonderfully unpredictable I-League—direct promotion from the 2nd division, or via bidding as a corporate entry. When the Sree Gokulam group won the corporate bid in 2017, Kerala had a team again in the league for the first time in 15 years—in 2002, FC Kochin had been relegated from the National Football League (later rechristened the I-League).
The I-League is renowned for its anyone-can-win-it format, with Aizwal winning the title in 2017, Punjab in 2018 and Chennai City in 2019. Kerala too could now aim for glory.
Gokulam Kerala FC’s (GKFC’s) fortunes have been uneven, with seventh- and ninth-place finishes in 2018 and 2019, respectively, their two seasons blighted by constant player churn and inconsistent form. But there was always potential: Gokulam Kerala had become known for beating the big teams. In the last two seasons, they have beaten Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Chennai City and Punjab. But they have also suffered from bad form, including a 13-match winless streak in 2018-19.
When the Durand Cup returned in August, Gokulam Kerala were hardly being spoken of as contenders. What ensued, though, was an emphatic statement of intent. They scored 11 goals in the group stages, even beating Indian Super League side Chennaiyin 4-0 in the process. In the semi-final, they beat East Bengal on penalties before seeing off Mohun Bagan in the final.
This was the second time in their brief history that they had beaten the Kolkata giants in consecutive games. And within a fortnight, Gokulam Kerala went from occasional giant-killers to favourites for the new I-League season.
“Everything changed (after the Durand Cup win). There is a lot of happiness, togetherness and support for each other in the dressing room. It seems like everything will be good this season—there is a momentum for the players, the coaches and the staff, unlike other seasons. And most importantly, there is a great vibe at the club," says Marcus Joseph, who scored 11 goals in the Durand Cup before adding two more in the I-League. He has scored 14 goals in all competitions this season, and his form has been aided massively by the return of the GKFC striker Henry Kisekka from Mohun Bagan.
“It was through Gokulam that I came to India, and playing again for them was like returning home. This season, the coach and most of the players are new but it has been very easy to adapt," says Kisekka, who scored four league goals in his first stint with Kerala (2017-18) and five for Bagan last season.
While the club’s plan has always been to buy some exciting young Indian talent to support a strong roster of overseas players, it is off the field that Gokulam Kerala have got things right this year. Their technical director Bino George, who has coached them earlier, says “payments are never ever delayed here"—that sort of security is encouraging for players.
“We also do everything to make sure the players are supported, whether it is the hotels they live in or the training facilities we use. The other big advantage is the involvement of the (GKFC) president V.C. Praveen, who is almost at every game to back the side," says George, who is in charge of all the youth teams’ selection, scouting, signing, training and development, as well as Gokulam Kerala’s women’s team.
Praveen has managed a 30-40% increase in the budget, to ₹6-7 crore this season. That has helped the team identify their targets early, with the help of their technical consultant Luis Greco. The Brazilian Greco worked as a scout for Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk for nearly a decade, spotting talent like Willian (now Chelsea), Fernandinho (now Manchester City) and Bernard (Everton).
“In India, we need players with a good combination of physical skills: speed, agility, strength. Our recruitment this year helps in our style—which is with lots of blocking and pressing and quick counter-attacks. We have an Argentinean and a Brazilian as the main components of the coaching staff. We are working on another signing as well, so as not to be over-reliant on Joseph and Kisekka. Last season, we had a few good players but did not gel as a team. This year, we are thinking as a unit," says Greco.
According to I-League analytics company InStat, this season GKFC have made more passes, more accurate key passes, are winning more tackles, creating more chances, taking more shots and sending in more crosses. They have certainly looked more menacing going forward.
“When you look at the I-League, our club management is the best. This has become a well-planned club. The strikers are really good and we are more confident while playing along with them. Now everyone believes we can win the I-League," says Mohammed Irshad, who has played every I-League season with Gokulam Kerala.
Indian football’s new road map has provided clarity—by 2024, I-League winners will become part of India’s top division, the Indian Super League, and by 2025, relegation and promotion will be fully implemented between the two leagues. A good season from Gokulam will make for an exciting future—with Kerala Blasters, Chennaiyin, Chennai City and Bengaluru already making a mark from the south.
“We started our planning for this season just after we finished our second season. We did not want to repeat our earlier mistakes. So we planned, gathered information about the players we wanted to sign and deliberated on it. We wanted to win trophies in all the championships we played. So the seriousness was there. We want to bring back those glory days of football in Kerala. If we win, then Kerala people will carry us in their hearts," says Praveen.
If his plan results in trophies, Gokulam Kerala could be on the cusp of something phenomenal.