Malappuram: Film and football connoisseurs are unlikely to forget the naive-looking footballer Samuel Abiola Robinson of the Malayalam movie Sudani from Nigeria. It wraps the tale of a hapless player from Nigeria who plays sevens football for a team in Kerala's Malabar region. The protagonist finds himself stuck in a house after he sustains an injury and loses his passport.
The story is no different for the foreign players signed by the football clubs of Malabar. Mostly, they are from African countries such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has rendered them gameless. For the past sevens months, these players have been staying in lodges and rented houses. They all hang in there in the hope that they can one day get back to their homelands and reunite with their families.
After India suspended international flights in March, more than 300 foreign footballers got stranded in various parts of the state. The team managers and local-level soccer clubs are still struggling to find a way to send the players back to their home countries.
Some of the larger clubs managed to send their players back to their home countries, via Gulf nations, by spending huge amounts for ticket fare. But the smaller clubs lack the finances and are even struggling to pay for the food and accommodation of the players.
But the soccer lovers of Kerala would not let their players ruminate in solitude. Kindling their hopes of a reunion with their families, soccer- lovers, soccer clubs and the All-Kerala Sevens Football Association (SFA) are all set to jointly arrange a chartered flight to take the players directly from India to different African countries, through crowd-funding. It is estimated that the cost of the chartered flight would be around Rs 1 crore and the SFA has already initiated the process of fund collection, apart from approaching the state government for financial support.
K M Lenin, state president of the Sevens Football Tournament Organisers' Association under the SFA, said the association had started crowd-funding with the support of different soccer clubs and business groups. "We are planning to arrange a flight from Delhi or Mumbai directly to African countries in the coming weeks. We expect the cost to be Rs 60,000 per player for the chartered flight," he said.
The association also expected financial support from the government. "We had approached Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and sports minister E P Jayarajan, seeking support. The government advised us to wait till reinstatement of international flight services from India. We are hopeful that the government will take a favourable decision soon," he said.
According to Lenin, at least 60 players who came to the state under the association are still stranded. Apart from them, more than 40 players, who were brought by various private clubs and teams, are also stuck.
"We have to spend at least Rs 200 for each player on a daily basis for their food and accommodation. It is not practical to keep them here further as the teams and clubs are struggling," he said.
Rajeesh Ali (Pyari), the manager of a football club in Areekode, said the spread of COVID-19 had badly affected the revenue of players and tournament organisers.
"The soccer clubs and SFA have limitations on spending huge amounts and taking care of them endlessly. The collection of funds from the public is going on smoothly and we are hopeful that the players can go back home and meet their families soon," he said.
Around 35 All-India Sevens Football tournaments are organised every season in Malabar alone. These apart, around 65 local-level football tournaments and fives-football events are also organised. Clubs and business groups bring foreign players to India. Rajeesh Ali said a foreign player earned between Rs 5,000 and 10,000 per game during the season. Some players earned up to Rs 7 lakh in five months. But this summer, no major tournaments were organized due to COVID-19.
It is learnt that a prominent business person in Nilambur had initially offered a huge amount to SFA to arrange a chartered flight for foreign players. But he stepped back from the move, delaying the entire process.
"I am still hopeful that somebody will help us go back to our country. My manager told me that SFA is planning a chartered flight. I am waiting to go back," said Brou Lulu, 25, from Ivory Coast, who is a player of Usha FC Thrissur. He is staying in a rented home near Kondotty.
Sergie Eric Koimi from Ivory Coast, a FIFA Manjeri Club player, is not only stranded here but also suffered a leg injury while playing in February.
Issaac Baba, 20, who is also from Ivory Coast and playing for different football clubs in Malappuram, said that though he was happy with the food and accommodation facilities, the longing to go back to his country was stressful.
(Nijeesh Narayanan is an independent journalist based in Kozhikode)