Sport, interrupted: Ambitious Gokulam Kerala hear alarm bells ahead of takeoff

Action from the Gokulam Kerala vs East Bengal game played in Kozhikode in March 2020. AIFF Media

The Covid-19 pandemic hasn't just stopped sporting competition, it has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN will look across the sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC) had been having a very productive 2019-20 when the sporting world came to a grinding halt due to the covid-19 pandemic. Their women's team had just been crowned champions of India and their men's team had won the Durand Cup. When the I-League decided to end its season, they were fifth in the table, just a point behind second-placed East Bengal (with a game in hand).

Ever since their entry to the league in 2017, GKFC have made their ambition clear -- they were not here to simply make up the numbers and this season's exploits stood testament to that drive. On-field progress has been complemented by an aggressive strategy off it. Unusually for a senior club in India, they have developed the women's team simultaneously -- and that too in a state without a senior women's league of any kind. A keen interest in developing local talent has seen them set up six football schools across the state, with well-advertised plans to continue this aggressive growth.

And then, the pandemic.

"We had a plan to extend our grassroots programme to every district in the state during the summer vacation. There was also a plan to start an academy for women," he said. "We are trying our level best to overcome these. For example, we [have] started online football coaching and it is going on smoothly," GKFC president VC Praveen told ESPN. In-house coaches and external consultants take classes six days-a-week, for an hour per session.

Expenses, meanwhile, still have to be met. With the youth leagues cancelled, around 30 out-of-state boys (mostly from Manipur) -- members of the U-13, U-15, and U-18 squads -- stayed at their academies until May 25. With the easing of inter-state travel restrictions, all but three boys (who are from Assam) have returned to their homes. Their safety and continued education remain amongst the highest priorities for the club.

All this commitment from the club will be severely tested as the next season draws closer.

Budget redefined

"Usually we spend around INR 7 crore a season. We were in the process of making a budget for next season and now we will need a rethink on where all can we reduce costs. Only after the lockdown and evaluating our sponsors' response to the whole crisis can we decide about the financials," said Praveen.

While they have 20-odd sponsors on-board, there is an inherent dependence on the parent company, Sree Gokulam group -- who remain the shirt sponsors. With business interests across chit funds, hotels, real estate, films and education, it remains to be seen how the group, and their chairman, Gokulam Gopalan, re-evaluate their budget for the next financial year.

Bino George, GKFC's technical director, says that the club's pockets may not be as big as many others, but they ensure that financial commitments made to players are met. With the likes of East Bengal seeking to terminate player and staff contracts as well as bringing in pay cuts across the board, Praveen has insisted that GKFC will not be doing that. "We are paying all the players according to the terms of the contract. We are not terminating anyone," said Praveen. While there is a caveat to this -- Praveen said that according to their contract, they do not have to pay the players after their last competitive matches -- the fact that the club continues to be active in the transfer market holds promise. "We have already made a couple of signings and are in talks with several players for next season," he said.

More in this series:

Sport, interrupted: How the coronavirus lockdown is affecting the Indian sport ecosystem

George expects next season's budgets to be lower, but isn't too worried because they had already been planning for lower operational spend this season. "Last year, even before the coronavirus crisis, we had discussed that we wanted to get a surplus in the budget next time around. And use that to develop our own ground, our own facilities." The spend on infrastructure is on hold now.

The logic behind holding off on spending over the next season was twofold, according to George. "After 2021-22, the I-League champions get into the ISL [by merit, no entry fee]. That season we can focus on building the squad more expansively, if needed," he said. "Only one or two people will leave [next season], most of the others have been contracted for a three-year period, so we are confident we can retain our footballing philosophy, our style of play." In a league where continuity is a rare commodity, he believes that will give them the edge.

Meanwhile, the women's team, George said, has a dedicated budget of INR 75 lakh, and there are no plans to lower that amount. Priya PV, GKFC women's team head coach, has been tasked with retaining the best performing players from this season, bringing in more Keralites into the team and getting in a foreigner "on the same wavelength as Sabitra Bhandari [the IWL's runaway top-scorer from Nepal]". "Once you become the champion, it's a matter of pride that we defend the title," said George.

What next?

The central theme for the coming season, though, remains uncertainty.

"No one has got a concrete plan because of the uncertainty of the situation," Praveen said. "We should give more time to all the stakeholders to draw plans for the next season because we don't know when we will be able to move freely across the country. Once everything settles, I think there will be a clearer picture of where we are headed."

He believes the AIFF should increase their subsidy for clubs. The federation had reduced it from INR 70 lakh to INR 45 lakh two seasons ago. "At present, the AIFF has reduced it, but the team expenses have increased drastically. Be it travel fare or accommodation, the outlay for a club is huge. If the AIFF increases the subsidy and absorbs some losses, then it would be a great help for the clubs, especially when there is a crisis like this," he said.

Looking at the big picture, Praveen believes that industry has to come together and chart a route out of this crisis. "If you look at the worldwide scenario, the whole sporting world is affected by this pandemic," he said. "There will be difficulty in sponsorship and in uncertain times no one will like to invest. So it will take time to solve these kinds of issues and it all depends on when we can start play again. We will have to overcome these. Uncertainty is there in almost every industry and there should be proper action from all the stakeholders in football. There should be consensus and everyone should understand the gravity of the situation. Only then will the path up front be smooth."