How Gujarat relied on Malayalam to spring a surprise in Santosh Trophy

Gujarat malayali players
Sagar Ali, Ajmal Eranjhikkal and Siddharth Nair, the Malayali players in Gujarat's Santosh Trophy team.

While there is a clamour for 'one nation, one language', the significance of regional languages was trumpeted by three Malayalis recently in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As Gujarat qualified for the final round of the Santosh Trophy after 37 years over the weekend, the focal point was the Malayali trio of Sagar Ali, Ajmal Eranjhikkal and Siddharth Nair.

But it wasn't just their footballing qualities that stood out in Gujarat's sporting triumph. They used their common mother tongue, Malayalam to enhance communication -- a vital component of any team game -- on the pitch.

With goalkeeper Ajmal and centre-backs Sagar and Siddharth striking a rapport in the heart of the defence, Gujarat held sway over their West Zone opponents conceding just one goal in three matches.

"Communication between defenders is very important and we were able to share our ideas effectively in Malayalam and none of the opponents understood a word," said Siddharth, 23, the youngest of the three.

The most vocal of the trio was Ajmal, 29, the oldest member of the squad, who is referred to as 'chacha' (uncle) by his younger teammates. He read the game well from the vantage point between the goalposts and screamed timely instructions in Malayalam.

Sagar, the 27-year-old Gujarat captain, was all ears for his keeper and stayed alert to the slick movements of opposition forwards. The camaraderie between the three was tested to the core when they met five-time Santosh Trophy champions Goa in the crucial qualifier. Credit to their valiant defending, Gujarat won 1-0.

"Beating Goa was the highlight," said Sagar Ali. "Gujarat used to lose heavily to Goa, and perhaps they underestimated us because this team is different," the captain said.

Gujarat had undergone a makeover in recent months with a new set of office-bearers taking charge of the state football association. The appointment of Goan Marcelino Pereira as the team's head coach also signalled a change in their fortunes.

The first thing the new management did was extend invites to talented players plying their trade in Gujarat, irrespective of their regionality.

Sagar, who has been playing the last three seasons for Ahmedabad-based ARA FC, was a natural choice. The native of Kothamangalam in Kerala's Ernakulam district has a wealth of experience having played professionally since his late teens.

"The majority of them are youngsters, who are fearless and ready to give their best. One of the first things we did was remove the notion that we are not the favourites," said Sagar, for whom it is a maiden Santosh Trophy call-up.

The Santosh Trophy.
Gujarat has never won the Santosh Trophy while Kerala has lifted the national title six times.

Unlike his captain, Ajmal has played in two Santosh Trophies. But it was for Tamil Nadu in the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons. However, a call-up for the Gujarat state team had evaded him until now since moving there in 2017 to work with the Income Tax Department.

"I'm just thrilled to be part of this transition period because everyone associated with the team is ambitious and wants to prove a point. We had a one-and-a-half-month camp in Bhavnagar and it really helped us gel as a unit," said Nilambur-native Ajmal, who is hugely popular in Kerala's seven's football circuit.

While Sagar and Ajmal are Gujarat's guests, Siddharth grew up in Baroda, where his father works with the Railways. Even though he is a proper Gujarat lad, Siddharth's parents, especially his mother, ensured that he and his elder brother stayed close to their roots.

"Our parents are so close to Kerala and have always insisted that we learn the mother tongue. Thanks to my mother I speak Malayalam fluently and can also read a bit,” said Siddharth. “I am just glad that I followed her advice," added the young defender.

While the coming together and their proximity on the pitch was sheer coincidence, Sagar, Ajmal and Siddharth realised they could use their 'Kerala connect' for the team's betterment. "When the communication improves, the understanding improves as well and thankfully there are no egos in our midst, which is also a huge plus," said Siddharth.

A fourth Malayali, Darren Job, was also part of the 22-member squad.

Interestingly, the final round of the Santosh Trophy will be held in Kerala in mid-January next year and Gujarat's Malayali trio can't wait for their homecoming.

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