We expected miracles to happen but they didn’t, and it is a tragedy: Gokulam Kerala CEO to South First

CEO Ashok Kumar on the mood in the camp after they were asked to return home; team is expected back in Kozhikode on Tuesday.

BySreerag PS

Published Aug 22, 2022 | 12:31 PMUpdatedAug 22, 2022 | 1:46 PM

Gokulam CEO

After the FIFA’s suspension of AIFF, the Kozhikode-based Gokulam Kerala FC, who were in Uzbekistan to participate in the AFC Women’s Championship, were asked by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to return to India. The club officials were hoping for a last-minute intervention by the Indian government and FIFA, allowing the team to play in the tournament. But it was not to be.

South First
spoke to the CEO of Gokulam Kerala FC, Ashok Kumar, who was with the team in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, hours before he managed to organise tickets to fly back to Kerala.

The team is scheduled to fly from Tashkent to New Delhi on Monday, 22 August, night. They are expected to reach Kozhikode by Tuesday evening.

What challenges were you facing after the suspension of AIFF by FIFA?

The whole world knows about the details, I don’t want to get into all of that. But one thing I can say is that there is so much to cry about. The team management asked us to put a smile on our faces, and that’s how I and my colleagues faced the players here.

We all expected miracles to happen, but they didn’t happen, and it is a tragedy for us. However, from now on, I have to think about the next Asian Cup championship and we will be moving towards that goal.  

What was the communication from the Ministry of Sports to the club on the issue?

Honestly, they did everything within their capacity to communicate with FIFA and AFC. But the rules and regulations did not allow us to participate in the competition because of the ban. We were in constant touch and they were updating us about everything. However, they said on the last day that it’s all over, we have to return to India and we said “fine”. 

Where is the team staying at the moment (late Sunday)?

We are in Tashkent (the capital city of Uzbekistan). We were never allowed to go to Qarshi (venue of the competition). They said they will provide us with the tickets, but later the authorities were asking us repeatedly to come back to India. In Tashkent, they are treating us well; they have given us training facilities as well. We are awaiting the tickets to move back to India (tickets have since been arranged).

The team is so emotional; they are all broken-hearted as their dreams have been shattered. But it is our duty to keep them in good spirits because now we have to think about the Kerala Women’s League and the Indian Women’s League. We have to again become the champions and qualify for the Asian Championship. We will definitely be there in the tournament next year. 

Well-wishers of the team want to compensate for the expenses of the club. Will the club accept help?

No. As of now I cannot go into such details. The lodging and boarding were taken care of by the authorities in Uzbekistan. The flight tickets have to be reimbursed from the AFC, which we will be doing soon. 

How are the players coping the situation? Are they getting better?

They were down, they were terribly down, they were in tears. But you can understand, they are in the age group 15 to 21 years — most of them are 18- or 19-year-olds who were looking forward to showcasing their talent on the global stage. A good opportunity for them, but it didn’t materialise. 

Most of them have signed with us for two or three years; the other girls who have joined us also say that we will be back and we will win the championship next year, that is the spirit. After today’s training, after many days I saw them laughing again. The training sessions brought back the smiles for these girls. 

Did the club have any communication with FIFA or AFC officials?

As club officials, we cannot have any direct interaction with those officials who are at the helm of AFC or FIFA. We can communicate by email, which we did; AFC responded that, unfortunately, due to the ban, the club cannot participate in the championship. It was as simple as that.

How do you think the current situation of AIFF will turn out to be?

In all the 33 years of my career, I have been an administrator. I have never entered into politics or commented on the functioning of the federation. In my opinion, it should be governed by the best of the people who are good enough to manage the federation. I concentrate more on the club and the development of my club. I want to see my club as the best in the country; and I also want it to be the best in Asia. 

We have been the champions of the Men’s I-league for the past two years and the Women League for the past three years. Now, we will be concentrating on the grassroots level, even in competitions like the Elite League, Junior Elite League and the U-14 League. I want the club to be No. 1 in all spheres. I will work towards it. 

How do you see the growth of women’s football in the country?

Do you know why I am so attached to the women’s team? A player like Manisha Kalyan, who left our club, is going to play with the Cypriot club Apollon Ladies FC in the UEFA Champions League. We are ranked 56th in women’s football at the moment. I tell you, it won’t take much time. We will be playing the World Cup. Such is the talent that is growing. But this kind of unfortunate event deters the spirit.

Football was never considered a prominent sport in the country, especially for women. Every parent would say that you go for table tennis, ball badminton, shuttle badminton, or volleyball. Of late, I see a surge; I see everyone coming forward. Especially in the state of Kerala, I see that change happening. Two or three years back I was running after every girl and their parents were unwilling; now I see every parent coming forward to see that girl playing for Gokulam Kerala or in our academy. 

When I conducted a trial for Under-14, there were a hundred girls in Kozhikode. Then I decided that we should go to other cities in Kerala like Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. Later, in every district, we were getting a hundred girls. It is a movement. This is when I realised, I need to be part of this movement. And I can foresee that before I die, Indian girls will definitely be in the World Cup.