Kerala: South India and the Beautiful Game

Words and photos by Michael Stoffl

A rather bizarre international football tournament is currently underway in South India, going mostly unnoticed by the general public.

I've just returned from attending five of the group phase matches of the Nagjee International Club Football tournament played in Kozhikode (the city formerly known as Calicut) in the state of Kerala.

The Sait Nagjee competition has actually been around since 1952, but was abandoned following the 1995 edition. Attempts to resurrect it last year failed, but plans were made to hold it in January this year. Eventually, the games got underway starting on February 5th, 2016, albeit with a different composition of teams than originally planned.

Traditionally, this was an All-Indian competition with the odd foreign team receiving an invite. This time, however, plans to include an Indian Super League side failed. India's U-23 team was then hotly tipped to fill that spot, but, in the end, two teams from South America and six from Europe were invited—with flights, hotels and all expenses paid by a generous group of sponsors.

No one less than Ronaldinho agreed to act as an ambassador for the tournament, and actually turned up in India to inaugurate the competition in January, a few weeks before the opening match.

In India, where cricket, hockey and kabaddi have always been the most popular sports, football is certainly on the upswing. Two years ago, the professional Indian Super League was formed, attracting a number of foreign players, and leaving some traditional clubs in the now second-tier I-League. India was also chosen to host the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017. Without exaggeration, the Sait Nagjee trophy is being considered akin to a mini-World Cup by the football-interested locals.

All games are being played at the EMS Corporation Stadium in Kozhikode, which holds a capacity of 45,000. The opening game attracted 35,000, while crowds at other group matches have hovered around 20,000. General admission is Rs.150 (€2), except for the VIP seats (plastic chairs at pitch level, including soft drinks and tea) that go for Rs.500 (€6.60).

No programmes or merchandise were produced. Snacks, bottled water and tea are readily available from mobile vendors for pennies. By and large, I was pleasantly surprised about the logistics and organisation (if you've been to India for an event before you may expect otherwise). Even the pitch was in good condition, considering the climate conditions. It's dry season, yet hot and humid, with temperatures around 36°C at daytime, dropping to 25°C at night.

Group A had CA Paranaense, Watford FC, Volyn Lutsk and Rapid București, while Group B featured Argentina's U23, Dnipro Dniproterovsk, Shamrock Rovers and TSV Munich 1860.

Rapid and Shamrock sent their first teams, while everyone else fielded their reserves/youth squads.

Semi-finals are still to be played this week, and if you'd like to follow up check out the official twitter account @NagjeeCup or go to http://internationalclubfootball.com/

Overall, once again a great football trip to one of the nicest parts of a wonderful country. Smiles and friendly people all over the place. And the food alone is worth a visit.

Words and photos by Michael Stoffl. You can find his adventures, and those of an incredible groundhopping brigade, on the European Football Weekends Facebook group.