Having run out of money and food and unable to go home, they appeal to football lovers the world over for help
“Our foreign players are not able to return home,” says Vinod K, manager of football club Fit Well FC Kozhikode.
The foreign players he refers to mostly hail from the African nations and form the heart and soul of the local football tournament circuit in Kerala.
“Players are stuck at various places across the state,” adds Vinod. “To my knowledge, there are around 155 players who are stuck without being able to return home."
Sevens, which north Kerala’s local football circuit is known for, is a format played with seven players per side. Though a craze particularly in the northern districts of Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasargode, the teams that participate hail from across the state.
The tournament season which starts in November-December, as per Vinod, stretches across the summer months, coinciding with the vacations, when the number of tournaments explode consequentially.
“There could be anywhere from 40-50 local tournaments in which teams participate in a year depending on availability of time and how far a team progresses in a tournament,” says Vinod. Each tournament will have 10-12 matches before the final as per Vinod.
“Ever since the lockdown began, we have not played even one match,” says Vinod. “My team’s last match was on March 09. The vacations are when the season picks up momentum. This year all of that has been lost. The bigger problem now is how to ensure that the foreign players are sent back home.”
“Some of the more experienced professional players have the means to buy themselves a ticket if and when flights resume, but most of the players are left with no money given they lost an entire season with no matches,” he says.
The income derived by the foreign players come from the fees they earn for match appearances.
“Match fees range anywhere from Rs 2500 per match to Rs 7000 or Rs 8000 even,” says Vinod. “Really good players will be playing up to 100 matches in a season and earning upto Rs 7-8 lakh too.”
But the higher fees are earned only by the reputed players who are well known in the local circuit with capabilities to match.
“The experienced players will also put down conditions as to their stay and flight tickets which are at times agreed to be paid for by the teams which hire them,” says Vinod. The teams in turn also loan the foreign players to smaller clubs at a fee when not playing, thus covering up some of the expenses in signing the foreign players.
“This year we have lost out on matches and the burden has fallen on the managers who have brought these players down to India,” explains Vinod. The plight of the managers is not very different either.
“I am a former player who after getting injured in an accident took to managing this team around 13 years back,” says Vinod.
The team Fit Well FC that Vinod manages has been playing since 1980 and is well known in the local circuits hence. But the reputation, Vinod says, is not matched with financial security.
“Most teams are managed by people like me. We don’t have the financial capability to cover the room rent and other expenses of the players for so long,” he says.
“As per the conditions given to us by the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office), the players are to be kept at the same place as where the manager is. I had brought four players myself. But with lockdown, an officer of the special branch of the police told me to additionally look after three other players who were roped in by another local team which had no means to look after them. So now I am looking after seven players,” says Vinod. The financial strain, Vinod says, is a big burden for the teams and their managers.
“There are 30 teams who are registered with the association and at least 22-23 of the teams have signed up foreign players. Rest of them play players on loan. The association has helped with Rs 15,000 per team but that is not enough. Room rent itself is a big drain.
We want football lovers the world over to know the plight of the local teams as well as that of the players right now. We are ideally looking for some financial help for the players to get back home. The plight of the teams is not important right now. These boys need to reach home as soon as possible,” appeals Vinod.
“The largest number of players are from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Liberia. There are players from Sierra Leone and Nigeria as well. Ideally, we want someone to come forward and sponsor their return. Ticket costs are too big for us to be able to manage with no matches being played. These are young boys hailing from villages in Africa which don’t even have electricity connections. Governments there it seems provide them with batteries for meeting power needs. The ticket rates are too high as it is and with no income earned this year, they have no means,” says a desperate Vinod.
23-year-old Tetteh Joseph, a player hailing from Ghana stuck in Edappal with six other foreign players says that he and the other players are all eagerly waiting to return home.
“We are all waiting for some arrangements to be made so that we can return home,” says Tetteh. “We are in constant touch with our families through WhatsApp.”
Tetteh, who was on his first season in Kerala, says he, like most others, are left with no money as no matches have been played in the peak of the season.
“I came down here in November and was supposed to go back by April. But the lockdown and stoppage of flights has resulted in me getting stuck,” he says. “My manager is providing us with food for now. But not all players are in the same situation. Some are not getting food and are having to meet the expenses somehow. So the situation is very bad for many players,” says Tetteh.
“Something has to be arranged for our return,” appeals Tetteh. Tetteh refused to give The Lede permission to use his photograph.
Seven’s Football Association president Lenin, hailing from Thrissur says around 116 players falling under the Sevens Football Association alone are in Kerala presently.
“This is apart from the 40-odd I-league players who, having no further matches after the I-league gets over in March, travel down to Kerala to play in the tournaments here. Ernakulam, Thrissur, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Kannur, Palakkad, Kasargode, players are stuck in all these districts.
We sent a request to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan through the sports minister seeking help in evacuating the players. We have been told that it is difficult since flights are yet to resume. We managed to send one player who was detected with cancer back to Ghana. This was with the intervention of the Ghana embassy who covered the expenses.
There are two more players here who are unwell. One of them is suffering from liver disease. Something has to be done regarding them as well,” says Lenin.
“The visas extended to the players are originally for six months,” says Vinod.
“The FRRO office has been extending their stay in batches of 15 days each in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. But how long can we carry on like this?” asks Vinod.
“A quick solution is the need of the hour. We want you to appeal to football lovers to pitch in with whatever help they can,” he says.