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Photo Essay | Seven not eleven

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-05-2014 Visy Valsan

Every year, after the monsoon retreats from Kerala, a whirlwind from Africa strikes the coast. Young men descend on the sweltering towns of northern and central Kerala to play in the famous “Sevens” football tournaments that locals claim are peculiar to the state.

For some of these Africans, it has become a part-time career. For others already studying here, it’s a chance to make some extra money.

This version of the game, which has just seven players in each team as opposed to the usual “eleven”, is popular in Kozhikode, Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur. The tournaments are played from December-May; some start as early as November.

“The concept of Sevens dates back to our pre-independence years when the Britishers played elevens in their army camps. Back then, the locals weren’t allowed to play with the whites and so they started playing in their own fields, which were much smaller in size. They played the match with seven or five players due to space constraints,” says Mohammed Ashraf Bava, convener, Kerala Sevens Football Association (KSFA).

The KSFA is not recognized by the Kerala Football Association (KFA) or the All India Football Federation (Aiff). “It is registered as an organization under the Societies Registration Act (1860), and comprises 32 Sevens clubs, a few referees and an organizing committee,” says KSFA president K.M. Lenin.

Players from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sudan sign up with local clubs, owned by jewellery traders, restaurateurs or store owners. Their work permits are arranged by the team managers. All the clubs provide the players with accommodation and food.

“There are close to 500 African players playing across Kerala. Many come because of extreme poverty back home. They don’t have jobs in their countries and these tournaments give them a chance to earn a quick buck,” says Satheesh R. Nair, former Santosh Trophy player and footballer for Malappuram’s Town Club Areekode.

A majority of the African players are at least first-division club players in their own countries. “The boost we get from the stands here is highly welcoming,” says Nigeria’s Christian Chukwu Toochukwu, who has been playing for Malappuram’s Mediguard team for three seasons.

“There’s a huge difference having African players in the team: Their height, the power of their kicks, dribble and the sheer number of goals gets the audience roaring,” says Hemanth K. Valsan, a practising civil lawyer and goalkeeper for Thrissur’s Soccer Mulangunnathukavu team. “Star players (both Indian and African) make up to `5,000 per match while the others are paid anything between `800-1,000. A team plays at least two matches a day and close to 30-35 matches a month. Sometimes, club managers also share their African players with other teams. That’s how the Africans make extra money,” he adds.

The matches, held under floodlights, are watched by thousands from makeshift galleries built of areca-palm trunks tied together with coir. Tickets are usually priced at `30.

Four years ago, in order to maintain a balance and contain the number of African players in each team, the KSFA introduced the rule that a Sevens team could have only two African players on the field, and each team could have three substitutes—including one African and two local players.

“Having many foreign players deprives our boys of a chance to play. Sevens is the local Malayali’s game. The KSFA has approved only 32 clubs because only they provide insurance to footballers, assure visas for foreign players and pay them correct rates. That apart, there are more than a thousand local clubs all over the state, with every village having at least 20-30 clubs,” says Lenin.

Sevens is not an approved game, so it is not as structured as a professional football association game. “Some players come back with injuries after playing Sevens and therefore can’t play other matches,” says Bava, explaining why the KFA does not encourage its players to take part in the Sevens.

Emmanuel Chicozie, Oxygen Pharma FC’s “player of the year” title holder, is a star player. As the most experienced foreign player in his group, Chicozie has already played for five seasons and sounded out his friends back in Nigeria about making Sevens a part-time career. His friend Eugene Nbubuisi Ovi joined him from Lagos, their hometown. Today, both play for the same Thrissur team. “The season brings these boys a windfall, some of the best players (both African and Malayali) even making as much as `5 lakh during the season,” says A.M. Suresh, the team manager.

At the end of every season, Chicozie works at Suresh’s pharma store while Ovi returns to Nigeria to play for the soccer clubs there. During the season, when they are not playing, these players are usually resting for forthcoming matches. “We don’t have much free time because we have matches every day. We sleep a lot and get up late. After that, most of our time goes in cooking and washing clothes. We never miss church on Sundays though,” says Ovi.

Others, like Sadjuma Bah and Alexander Sayon, have come on student visas from Liberia with the aim of completing their bachelor’s in economics and sending home a bit of money. “I have 16 members in my family and they look up to me for money. This is why I play Sevens. The money is good, so it helps. It’s going to be difficult when the season ends because I won’t be able to make money. It’s difficult to find a part-time job. Once the degree gets through, I’m hoping for a good job in Liberia,” says 27-year-old Bah, Soccer Sporting Shornur’s striker.

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