Only three teams have won the Indian Super League since it kicked off in 2014 and Mohammed Rafi, the experienced footballer from Kerala, has won the trophy twice with different clubs.
Having excelled in the I-League with Mahindra United, Rafi had made a name for himself in Indian football before he was signed by Atletico de Kolkata in 2014 for the inaugural season of ISL. The Kolkata-based franchise lifted the trophy, beating a David James-led Kerala Blasters in the final.
His appeared in the final again two years later with Blasters but ended up on the losing side. Rafi moved to Chennaiyin FC in the season that followed and voila! He was a champion again!
The two-time champion decided to return to the place he calls home. He'd left without a trophy so it was time to win a third title but the much-anticipated return of the 'headmaster' did not go according to plan.
"There was a lot of expectations at the start of the season. We had a good team. Then there were a lot of injuries. I injured my hamstring a week before the season started, came back and played a couple of games and then was out injured again for more than two months. I missed a lot of games due to injuries and it was disappointing," Rafi recounted the disappointment of the season that never truly kicked off to Goal.
Winning the title in 2014 remains the standout moment for Rafi, who said, "The ISL win in the first season was truly special. It was unlucky to miss out in the final with Kerala Blasters. Then at Chennaiyin, it was pleasing to win the trophy in my first season itself."
Why hasn't Kerala Blasters won a trophy yet? As a player who has been part of title-winning squads, Rafi feels there is too much hype built around young talents in Kerala which is a dampener to their spirits if things go awry.
"There is too much focus on youngsters. Teams do need experienced players also (to succeed). There are a lot of senior players who work harder than younger players, people don't see that. I have been playing football for around 18 years and for me, I have gained a lot of knowledge from my seniors," the 38-year-old said.
He also pointed out that youngsters, when hyped up on social media, are a lot more prone to capitulation.
"There are people who started watching football when ISL started. There are fans who are always there to support you. And there are fans who blame poor results on just senior players and focus on abusing individuals on social media. Experienced players know how to handle situations due to their match experience and they are important to the team.
"The pressure from fans affects young players more. They become more disappointed easily due to verbal attacks. When a youngster plays well, they treat him as a star, when he doesn't do well in a game, he is treated as a nobody. I have seen this happen," the experienced forward added.
Rafi has been around for a lot of years and has been there to witness the ups and downs of Indian football. He has played with and against both good and not-so-good foreign footballers, which is why he also is in favour of reducing the foreign player quota of Indian leagues.
"If Indian football has to improve, the number of foreigners needs to come down. Only then, Indian players will get an opportunity to perform. If foreign players don't do well, there will be added pressure on Indians as foreigners aren't criticized in the same way," he opined.
And the striker has no doubts that there are players who can do well when given the chance to perform and moulded in the right manner.
"There are a lot of good footballers in Kerala but they don't have clubs to show their talent. There are exciting players like Rahul KP. I have never seen a better speedster than him. He is so fast. If he trains and is used well, he can be a really good player. Leon Augustin, who is with Bengaluru FC, also another really exciting talent," the footballer said.
Rafi's know-how of football in Kerala can be an advantage for any club that makes use of his services when he hangs up his boots. The striker has plans to do the same.
"I wish to stay at Kerala Blasters and retire here. I will see the offer and decide. I would also like to maybe work at the club and help find talent in Kerala. Let's see."