The mid-1990s was in many ways an exciting time for football fans in India. It was a period which heralded a change in the domestic football structure with the establishment of the National Football League (NFL) in 1996.
It was the first-time ever that a national league was established in the country whose football appetite had been whetted before by prestigious cups like the Durand Cup, Federation Cup, the Santosh Trophy and other invitational tournaments.
With NFL came TV coverage, better prize money and more attention for the players. Those were exciting times and a group of Malayali businessmen were about to make it even more so. A consortium of Non Resident Indians (NRI) from Kerala, led by PV Paul, established the first-ever fully professional football club in Kochi in 1997, just after the first season of the NFL had concluded.
The development lit a spark in Kerala, with the football-mad people embracing the club with open arms. The once-successful and ever so popular Kerala Police team had faded after their purple patch in the mid-1980s and early 90s. The region finally had another team to wholeheartedly throw their weight behind.
It was not just that though. FC Kochin managed to rope in the two absolute stars and sons of the soil in IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. The two were at the peak of their powers, were among the highest-paid players in India and were absolutely adored in Kerala.
With heavy investment propping them up, FC Kochin went about creating quite a ripple ahead of the 1997-98 season. They managed to land United Breweries as their principal sponsor and duly splurged the cash. They built a star-studded squad which saw goalkeeper Sumit Mukherjee make the move down south from Bengal (a rarity in those days). Carlton Chapman too followed Vijayan and Ancheri from JCT. A young and promising striker in Raman Vijayan was brought in as well.
Ghanaians Ali Abubakkar (goalkeeper) and Mohammad Salissu (midfielder) joined a trio of Nigerian midfielders in Saeed Akinsanya, Bernard Operanozie and Friday Elaho, making up the foreign contingent.
The cash splurge was evident in the facilities afforded to the players too. The club tried to ensure the professionalism extended to every avenue. The players were no more travelling via train but via flights. Plush, air-conditioned flats were provided to the players and top quality training equipments and kits were made available. Suddenly, FC Kochin became a dream destination for Indian footballers.
It was not just money, the support was tremendous too. The team attracted massive crowds whereever they played. In fact, when they reached the final of the Scissors Cup in Kozhikode, the stadium was jam-packed and about 25000 people were still waiting outside without tickets. The final, against Bahrain's West Riffa club turned out to be a damp squib with the game abandoned due to a power cut in the stadium. The Bahraini team were adjudged winners after a coin toss.
They also topped the South Zone part of the Federation Cup that year. But were denied entry to the final stages since the All India Football Federation (AIFF) deemed that entry was based on the previous season's performance and FC Kochin had just come into existence.
But the moment of reckoning came in the Durand Cup that year. The star-studded team, under the tutelage of renowned Kerala coach AM Sreedharan, reached the final after defeating JCT Mills 4-3 in the semifinal. A Kolkata giant in Mohun Bagan, coached by Amal Dutta, was their opponent in the summit clash at the Ambedkar stadium in New Delhi.
It was the clash that catapulted FC Kochin into the hearts of Kerala football fans. They took the game to their illustrious opponents and roared into the lead. Though Bagan equalised, IM Vijayan took matters into his own hands. He regained the lead for his team with a superbly controlled header and they would go on to win the game 3-1.
It was such a momentuous occasion for the club in their debut season and was celebrated jubilantly across Kerala. In fact, the next day, most newspapers in Kerala shunted the news of Arundhati Roy winning the Booker Prize to a sidenote and led with FC Kochin's heroics in Delhi.
In many quarters, the victory was even seen as a passing of the baton from Kolkata to Kerala as the cradle of Indian football.
Their brilliant performances in the lead up to the NFL meant the AIFF gave them a direct entry to the league. In the 1997-98 season, FC Kochin caught the imagination of the country and finished fourth on the table, just five points adrift of winners Mohun Bagan. Young Raman Vijayan, who struck up a brilliant partnership with his more illustrious namesake, was the topscorer for them with 10 goals.
FC Kochin were the toast of Kerala at that point. But they could not quite match up to their heroics in the next season.
Ahead of the 1998-99 campaign, IM Vijayan and Ancheri were snared by Mohun Bagan while Raman Vijayan and Chapman went to East Bengal. With these key men departing for Kolkata, Kochin's performances suffered. There were changes to the foreign contingent as well. Though some promising players like Noel Wilson, Prasanta Mukherjee and Mahesh Gawli were roped in, they failed to make a mark in the cup competitions and finished sixth in the second stage of the NFL.
The club, however, managed to bring back their two crown jewels ahead of the 99-00 season. Vijayan and Ancheri were back to Kochi and the mood around the club was one of optimism. However, poor show in the Rovers Cup and Durand Cup ahead of the NFL meant the team handed the reins to an experienced coach in TK Chathunni.
In the NFL, the team put up a better show and finished fourth again with Bagan winning the title. This season also witnessed State Bank of Travancore (SBT) qualify for the NFL setting up a Kerala derby in the league. It was a fixture that attracted huge crowds, in both Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.
However, the club were guilty of extravagance and mismanagement of the funds they had. By the end of the 99-00 season, the cracks were beginning to show. There were rumours of a disgruntled dressing room with several players' payment in arrears. In fact, club chairman PV Paul and secretary Babu Mather had to pull some strings to raise funds and even convince their star players to stick with them.
At one point, it seemed FC Kochin would not have a team to put out ahead of the 2000-01 season. But they managed to do so and somehow raised enough funds to bring in a Liberian contingent that would capture the imagination of the fans. In came goalkeeper Sunday Seah, stopper-back Patrick Nuku, midfielder Eugene Gray, attacking midfielder Rashidi Williams and striker Aaron Cole.
Dubbed the fantastic five, the Liberians were fan favourites, especially Seah. He would often play the first half in between the sticks and then double up as a striker in the second half. And Seah used to score as well, making him a hit with fans. Gray also had an impact for FC Kochin and the club once again finished fourth in the NFL, 12 points off winners East Bengal.
But the financial crisis worsened at the end of the season, leading to a mass exodus. Vijayan and Ancheri bid adieu to Kochi and were signed by East Bengal for big money while the Liberians Seah and Gray were roped in by Salgoacar. Other key players left the club too as the outlook turned bleak for India's first professional club.
There was no sponsorship money coming in and the club officials alleged that the AIFF were yet to pay them the prize money for their NFL performances. There were issues at the board level as well. All seven members on the FC Kochin board of directors quit following their differences with Paul and the other two trustees. Club manager O Chandrasekharan resigned as well, citing unprofessional and unsustainable way of handling finances.
Paul tried to breathe some life into the club by borrowing money and bringing in Czech manager Karel Stromsik. However, the lack of sufficient funds meant no top Indian talent was available. Youngsters like Sushant Mathew and Kalia Kulothungan were handed chances along with a host of local footballers who were yet to prove themselves in the top flight.
The results were catastrophic. Stromsik left midway through the season with a parting shot at the club - "With this kind of game and players, even Alex Ferguson won't be able to save the club."
Liberian goalkeeper Pewou Bestman was handed interim coaching duties but the morale of the team was shot to smithereens by then. There was no money and the players just wanted to end the season and leave.
The lowly Tollygunge Agragami delivered the body blow with a 5-0 thumping in Kochi which confirmed the team's relegation, much to the heartbreak of the supporters who had grown to care for the club in the short period of its existence.
There was no way back for FC Kochin after that. They tried their luck in the NFL second division a year later, with the help of a few football enthusiasts and entrepreneurs in the state. But they could not stage a comeback and the club was disbanded in 2004.
It was a sad end in many ways for a club that promised a lot. India's first ever professional club had a meteoric rise, winning the Durand Cup on their debut and reaching the final of several other tournaments. But their fall from grace was even swifter, brought about by an unsustainable model of spending and extravagance that dashed the hopes of an entire state.
But the club will be remembered fondly by fans in Kerala for bringing the NFL bandwagon to the state and along with it a host of top players in the country at that point in time. But it is a story that was not to be.