Sobs, cheers, boos, silence...the stadium soundtrack as Kerala becomes India's football capital

Kerala lift the 2022 Santosh Trophy AIFF Media

The Manjeri-Payyanad football stadium, in central Kerala, is like something straight out of a postcard. It's in the middle of nowhere - no shopping or residential areas for kilometers around the approach road; the low, long bleachers running parallel to the length of the ground are open to the elements, as are the curved ones behind the goals. Behind them, the rolling green hills of Malappuram make for a spectacular background.

On Monday, the stadium hosted the final of the Santosh Trophy, the annual inter-state tournament - and also hosted 30,000-odd spectators who came to watch it. For a fortnight now the people of Malappuram have been making the daily pilgrimage to the stadium, and they haven't been let down. Their team, Kerala, scored 18 goals in five games en route the final, seven of those coming in their semifinal vs neighbours Karnataka. In the final, they are meeting West Bengal -powerhouses of Indian football, 32 (THIRTY-TWO!) times winners of the Santosh Trophy.

The tournament has been around since 1941 but today has none of the glamour and prestige it held till a couple of decades ago. It's now very much the third tier of Indian football, the players far from the steps of the national team and from those of the ISL and I-League sides. Consider that the I-League is happening simultaneously in Kolkata and you understand how marginalized this tournament has become in the calendar.

For those in Kerala of a certain age, though, this was the football tournament, and competing for it still means something. And so the fans came in their thousands; this reporter reached the road approaching the ground at 5.30 PM, two and a half hours before kickoff and it took another half-an-hour to cover the final kilometre, the traffic bumper-to-bumper, motorbikes everywhere. It seems the stadium had been slowly filling to capacity since 4 PM, four full hours before kickoff.

Just how many were in there? Well, when they announce that the official attendance is 26,875, it's the Kerala boos - screaming (and you must scream this) "kooooo", the final "ooo" flowing up and down the longer you can hold it - that ring out across through the stadium. Everyone knows that the number is rubbish. There are at least 5,000 more. A single ticket is forwarded on WhatsApp to multiple people, and since there's no kind of scanning, that trick works wonders. There are many who vault the short walls around the stands behind each goal. There are people sitting in every available seat on the bleachers, and there are more standing in front, beside, and behind them. It's bedlam outside the stadium complex gates, and even worse at the entry points to the stands inside. The threat of an imminent lathi charge sits heavy in the air.

All that's pre-match, though. Once the game starts, nothing else matters. All the cops detailed to the stadium are in it, watching, commenting, living it. So are all the fire and emergency staff, as well as the hundreds of volunteers.

In the first half, Kerala are attacking the goal right in front of where I'm standing -- on top of a chair, because that's what everyone is doing, and there's no other way to see the match. There are people from all across the district (and some from further out) jostling for the best views in there.

There's Rizwan, in his early 20s, who's come from Nilambur with his friends. They had come for the semi, but had returned after not getting tickets and they'd missed the show their hometown hero, Jesin TK, had put in (a 30th minute substitute against Karnataka, he scored 5 goals that day).

There's Srinivasan, a slightly older gentlemen who tsk-tsks his way through the game, telling the players the exact weight a through-ball requires and when they must switch flanks. He tells anyone who will listen to keep a close eye on Arjun Jayaraj and Jijo Joseph, Kerala's midfield conductors.

There's Noufal, who's half-watching, half-explaining the rules and intricacies of this game he loves to his young son and daughter, both of whom are fascinated by the whole shebang.

There's Mohammedkutty, who's come alone, and keeps shaking his head gently at the chances Kerala are missing. In his late sixties, he reminisces about the time he went and saw the Santosh Trophy live in the mid '70s in Kozhikode (the closest big city).

They have come in their best evening dresses, crisp white mundu and neatly pressed shirt and in jerseys of all kinds. There are many Messis, even a lone PSG #30. There's the occasional Ronaldo #7 and a lot of unnamed Brazil shirts. There's even a Newell's Old Boys' #10 -- Maradona, still represented in this little nook where they love him more than anyone. Most of all, though, there are thousands in Kerala Blasters yellow, the colour matching the Kerala team's.

It's the last night of Ramzan, and between comments and cheers and "kooos" the crowd share whatever food they have brought in, and water. Around extra-time a massive watermelon is cut somewhere in front of me and distributed generously to everyone around: There are no strangers in a Malappuram football crowd.

The match itself is tense, cagey, very physical. A proper final. Bengal miss a few chances early on and each time the relief is palpable. Kerala grow into the game, create multiple chances, and miss them all. This fuels the inherent pessimism of the Malayalee, especially that of the slightly older generation, and everyone's talking about how it's just a matter of time before their team concedes. As the tension grows, so does the frustration. The incessant hum of vuvuzelas wanes, as does the rhythmic drumming that accompanies it. An impromptu chorus of Ricky Martin's classic '98 World Cup anthem, The Cup of Life, rouses one stand.

In the 97th minute, Dilip Orawn scores for Bengal, and the stadium lapses into the sound of silence. Yes, 30,000-odd people falling silent at once is... loud. The silence fills the air, heavy and ugly. It lasts a whole minute, before a few vuvuzelas start off a loud, rousing cheer. It works. Ten minutes later, Bibin Ajayan scores. The noise is now deafening. Everyone is screaming and jumping. The stadium is quite literally bouncing. Everyone's hugging everyone else. Chairs are flattened. Mohammedkutty is 20 again, the quiet elder transformed into a leaping, giggling man-child. "Now, it doesn't even matter if we lose," he manages to say in between sobs of happiness.

The penalty shoot-out, as luck would have it, happens in the goal right in front. Every Kerala goal is cheered like it's won them the World Cup. The one Bengal miss gets an even louder cheer. When Fasalrahman Methukayil strokes in the fifth and final penalty... goosebumps. The decibel levels are off the charts. No one knows quite what to do with themselves. There's a mini-pitch-invasion. The players go berserk, as does the coach Bino George. The crowd chants their names when they regain their senses. Almost everyone stays back, through a very long, very boring presentation ceremony, to watch their team lift the trophy. It's Kerala's seventh ever win. The state now houses the champions of the Santosh Trophy, the I-League, the Indian Women's League and the finalists of the ISL.

As the crowd filters out the stadium, the rush of adrenaline waning, the few hotels open in the area fill up quickly. I stop at a place a fair bit away from the stadium, and it's jam-packed. As I wait for my order of a ghee rice and some grilled chicken, I turn on the late Premier League match (12.30 AM kickoff) between Manchester United and Brentford. Even as he waits for his chickens to grill to their juiciest, the cook, Naseem, wanders over to check on the score. It's just past half-time and United are leading, and (surprisingly) playing some neat football. We both smile, and he immediately pegs me as a fellow United fan. At which point his boss spots him, and he has to rush back to the grill. I do get that chicken much quicker than anyone else around me, though, with a quick wave and a "next year, we shall!"

Santosh Trophy. Sevens tournaments. Inter-University matches. The English Premier League. In Malappuram, the football never stops.