Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

This is Jo Paul Ancheri’s village

In 1993, the ball wizard sparked a footballing revolution in sleepy Thiroor, inspiring a generation to embrace the beautiful game

Bus conductor: “Where to chetta (brother)?"

Passenger: “One ticket to Thiroor"

Bus conductor: “Thiroor temple or church?"

Passenger: <Confused> “Erm..."

Bus conductor: <Smiles knowingly> “Going to Thiroor bar, chetta? Then you need to get off at the church bus stop!"

Passenger: <Embarrassed> “Thiroor church, then!"

This was a scene that played out quite frequently in the early 1990s, on the public transport buses that serviced the state highway connecting Thrissur and Shoranur.

I grew up in Thiroor, one of the many small villages that dotted this busy road. The bar was Thiroor’s claim to fame—a nondescript joint by the highway, it was a popular destination for the folks from the city who wanted a change of scenery and for college students who did not want to be seen drinking in their own neighbourhood bars.

Even now, I occasionally bump into random Malayalis in my age group whose faces light up the moment I say the word “Thiroor"—these are blokes who had their first clandestine (and surely underage!) drink at that (in)famous bar.

And for a long time, the bar was pretty much the only thing that we were known for.

That is, until Jo Paul Ancheri happened.

It was 1993. Every high school kid in the neighbourhood, including me, were busy trying to perfect the mannerisms (THAT crotch adjustment, THAT shy bat-raise) of THAT boy-wonder from Mumbai who I shall not name because I think one should be able to write something about Indian sports without mentioning Sach... Damn.

A young lad called Jo Paul Ancheri, who lived a few houses down the street from ours, got selected for the India U-21 football team and landed a professional contract to play club football for State Bank of Travancore (SBT).

Now, Thiroor, like most places in Thrissur, always had a par-for-the-course football-madness. There was the annual Sevens tournament. There were the obligatory supporters’ groups (“fans associations", as they are known in Kerala) for Argentina and Brazil (of course). My mum, a paediatrician, distinctly remembers two of her regular patients, siblings named “Gullit" and “Basten"—their dad must have been a huge fan of Holland internationals Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten.

But then, Ancheri’s call up to the India U-21 side took Thiroor’s football madness to a whole new level. Cricket died an instantaneous and violent death. Almost everyone in my neighbourhood gully-cricket group switched to panthukali (which literally translates to ball-game) overnight and started kicking around in muddy rainswept playgrounds.

I was not into football at all at that time and I surely did not see the fun in chasing a football in the mud and slush. Trust me, it’s nowhere as cool as it looks in movies like Goal.

Over the next year, Ancheri signed for Mohun Bagan and went on to win the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year award.

Things went DEFCON 1 in our little village.

In Thiroor’s entire existence in modern times, this must have been the only period when vast tracts of its teenage male population rejected sarkari jobs/emigrating to a Gulf country as the default career and life option.

The local lads embraced football as if their lives depended on it. This was no “hobby" or “extra-curricular activity"—that conveniently risk-averse and totally harmless way in which Indian kids are conditioned to view sports.

I remember bumping into a couple of my former cricket buddies, on the way home after a particularly nasty secondary school board examination. I was sweating bullets, but those guys were on a totally different planet.

In addition to being über-cool about a test that just scared the living daylights out of most people, they were actually on their way to the local ground for a football game—on the eve of another, even more terrifying test. If this were a Hollywood space movie and the lead characters were all school teachers, then that would be the point when they would say, “Houston, we have a problem..."

I remember a scene from a year or so later, when I was in the throes of that great Indian middle-class rite of passage called “preparing for professional college entrance examinations" (that is the official version, just in case my parents end up reading this—the reality included several months of no classes thanks to the student agitation against the privatization of professional colleges, several morning-shows at the Ragam theatre in Thrissur town and a lot more other shenanigans that sometimes included Old Monk rum). A teacher had dropped by for a social call and was talking with my dad, wringing his hands in despair.

Apparently, there had been a non-trivial dip in the local high school’s board examination results and, to make matters worse, many parents appeared to be rather chilled out about this. This was revolution in the making.

Even some middle-class parents, who otherwise would have put academic pursuits front and centre (and left and right, and up and down), started to actually think (grudgingly, in a corner of their minds) that their kids might actually make something worthwhile out of football, “nammude Jo Paul-ine pole" (“like our Jo Paul").

Young whippersnappers of the post-liberalization IPL era will not understand how big a deal this was—in 1990s middle-class Kerala, this was unchartered territory, almost in the league of a certain Nicolaus Copernicus’s most famous work.

The thing about revolutions, though, is that, just like start-up companies, most of them fail. The football revolution in our village, too, failed eventually.

Many of the wannabe footballers were yanked back on to that treadmill called the Indian educational system by alarmed parents. Many others learned the hard way that their ticket out of the village lay, as it always did, in getting on that treadmill, getting a diploma/degree and migrating to Mumbai/Bengaluru/the Gulf.

Eventually, “the system" sorted out the “glitch" and the old order was re-established.

Soon, I left home for my college education, and subsequently, my parents’ state government jobs relocated us from Thrissur district itself. As far as I know, nobody else from around there is yet to emulate Ancheri’s accomplishments in the sport. He is probably the last in a long line of old-school Thrissur players who became part of the Kerala football folklore—C.V. Pappachan, Victor Manjila, I.M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri.

Ancheri went on to have a sterling career as a footballer. In addition to successful stints with the top professional football clubs of the time—SBT, Mohun Bagan, JCT Mills and East Bengal—he went on to captain the Indian senior team. He won the AIFF Player of the Year award once again, in 2001.

As for the bar, it did roaring business, continuing to be the watering hole of choice in the region. That is, until last year, when, in what can only be described as an act of war against Malayali-dom as we know it, the United Democratic Front (UDF) government had it shut down along with all the non-five-star bars in the state.

Thrissur voted with a vengeance and the UDF was electorally bombed all the way back to the stone age. In all of Thrissur district, they managed to scrape through in just one assembly seat.

Ancheri’s greatness does not just come from the fact that he achieved all that he did without modern professional coaching, learning in muddy village school grounds. What makes Ancheri really special is that despite being a product of a society and an era that vehemently discouraged non-conformity of any sort, he somehow managed to dream of being a panthukalikkaaran (footballer) and went on to live the dream.

The year 1993 will be forever remembered as the year in which our little village stopped being famous for a roadside watering hole. That is when we started to puff our chests out and say, “This is Jo Paul Ancheri’s village!"

Vijai Bosco John is an expat Malayali living in Cambridge, UK. Outside of his day job in the tech industry, he likes to read—mostly politics, history and philosophy—and occasionally blog in Malayalam at charukasera.wordpress.com

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