New I-League champions Gokulam Kerala FC received a rousing reception when they landed with the coveted trophy at the Calicut International Airport here.
Kerala is known for its sheer passion for the beautiful game, and that passion was prominently on show when the Malabarians faithful finally got a glimpse of the coveted trophy after winning their maiden I-League title.
“Kerala has been a powerhouse in Indian football. But it had been sleeping for two decades. We have had great teams like Kerala Police and FC Kochi in the past, but it was high time for us to revive that past,” said Gokulam Kerala FC CEO Ashok Kumar.
“We have proved that our state is as big a powerhouse as the likes of Goa, West Bengal, Manipur, Mizoram or Meghalaya,” he said.
Speaking about the rapturous reception that the Malabarians got upon their arrival here on Saturday, Kumar said: “I’ve never seen anything like it. The closest thing I have seen to this was when the Indian cricket team would land in Chennai, after a successful tour of Australia.”
The I-League came to a grandstand finish on Saturday, when three teams were tied at the same number of points atop the table — Gokulam Kerala FC, Churchill Brothers FC Goa, and TRAU FC. Needing a win to ensure their maiden league title, the Malabarians came back from a goal down to defeat the Red Pythons 4-1.
Despite the fact that Gokulam finished on the same number of points with Churchill, who also picked up the three points in their final match of the season against RoundGlass Punjab, the Kerala team was crowned champion by virtue of its better head-to-head record.
However, it has not been an easy season for the Malabarians, who had stumbled along their way in Phase I of the league, before finally picking up the pace in Phase II, where they picked up 16 points from a possible 18, to finish top.
“It was always a building process for us. If you look at our squad, we have plenty of local players who have long contracts. It’s all about working with them, even when they make mistakes and keep on improving as a team, as a family,” said Technical Director Bino George.
“It was the same case with us this season as well. Our technical staff constantly worked on the mistakes that we made in Phase I, so that by the time we were in Phase II, we were functioning like well-oiled machinery. We want to grow football both in Kerala and in India,” he said.
With their maiden I-League win of the season, Gokulam Kerala have now sealed direct qualification for the 2022 AFC Cup Group Stage, subject to AFC Club Licensing.