Prime Minister Narendra Modi's declaration of a countrywide lockdown on March 25th had blown the final whistle for the 2019-2020 'sevens season' in Kerala (the genre of popular football played in the state with only seven players a side). Most of the major tournaments stopped. Thrissur district could host only one of their ten tournaments and Malappuram had only eight out of twenty-four. Kannur and Kasargod could complete only one tournament. Though Kozhikode district completed their three out of their four tournaments including 'Koyappa All India Sevens, Koduvally', which is the largest cup of all, Wayanad district had to call off their only tournament mid-way.
In those days when India witnessed the labourers walking home from far away states and many falling dead on their way, the African footballers who had travelled to Malabar for their monetary reward, got trapped in Kerala. It was also reported that Juan Muller, the twenty-three-year-old Ghanaian footballer, had to spend seventy-two days in the gardens and parking lots of Mumbai airport eating bread until he was found by Mumbai District Football Association President Aaditya Thackeray. Muller was in a hurry to reach home when he heard about international travel ban.
When the country is into the seventh month of the first lockdown declaration, almost two hundred players from different parts of Africa are pushing behind their days in Kerala without even basic needs . Only to worsen the prospects, the looming flood in Kerala was feared to add more troubles to the lives of the 'black panthers' if there are no immediate measures from the side of governments.
"Our season finished before April, and we would have been home by this time in normal circumstances. Due to this year's predicament, we are all trapped here. We are just managing to live without proper food. We are eating rice every day, lifestyle has completely altered. Can we eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner for such a long period? You can also think of how it is going to affect our fitness as footballers" says Liberian forward James, popularly known as Adebayor. Adebayor is one of the most popular players of the tournament, famous for his goals combined with former Gokulam Kerala's forward Ashiq Usman, in Royal Travels Kozhikode.
"Most of the managements are very poor, some wealthy managers are glad to offer big amounts to some of the players to get back home. But that will leave many of our brothers behind who have not earned much from here. So we are staying united. All two hundred players should go together. We have to be home, at least we will have our families around. We can't ask our families to send us money even when some of us are troubling to buy basic amenities. Managers cannot provide two thousand rupees every day for players, rather they have started complaining about rents, food and other expenses. We can understand their situation too, no business has happened for them in this lockdown period. But it is their responsibility to take us back home" Adebayor added.
The sevens football managers are not rich as it is seen from outside. Sevens tournaments are the only economic resource for many of the managers. The management had to be run on loans in the previous months even for the daily expense of foreign players as most of the tournaments had to be called off.
"All the clubs came together to manage the expenses of foreign players. But the poor managers are already running on loans and debts. Players do not have any money gained through the tournaments. It's not that we do not wish to help. We have been taking care of them, we have even sponsored the cancer treatment for two of the foreign players. Now its á bad time" says Mubarak, the secretary of Lightning Club Koduvalli, which is the chief organizer for the 'Koyappa All India Sevens Tournament', locally known as 'World Cup of Sevens Football'. Koyappa couldn't net the expected income, though the tournament was successfully completed in February, as the collection of the sponsorship amount could not happen in April and May due to the lockdown.
"In the beginning, we were receiving sponsorships to run the daily expense for the players. Now it's running on loans. Rents and daily expenses have turned unbearable for us" says Vinod, the manager of Fitwell Kozhikode.
"Every day our families are seeing COVID cases shooting up in India. They call and enquire if we are okay or if we are sick. It has turned a routine now. This is my first visit to Kerala, It is a good place of good people. I want to come back here, but now I have to reach home first. There are my friends who eat one time a day. Yesterday my friends called and said that their residence area is being flooded. We could manage if it is our motherland. But in a different place, you don't know what to do " said Richmond, the newly signed-up central forward of Fitwell club. The Ghanaian was part of the protest video which was sent to Ghana embassy by all players from Ghana. He says the government didn't even notice their protest.
"They gave no importance to it. They said to pay 1,000 dollars to get home. The doors are closed for us to find that much amount. It's not easy brother, nothing good or nothing better" Richmond said.
After continuous representations and requests to the central government and the embassies of different African countries went unattended, now the managers are moving for crowdfunding. The project named as 'Kerala to Africa' headed by Vinod and Abdul Jabbar, managing staff of Royal Travels, Kozhikode, is appealing to the public for contributions in order to charter flights to Africa. The Indian national footballers like IM Vijayan, Muhammad Rafi, Anas Edathodika and Sahal Abdul Samad have shared their videos appealing for donations.
"People are responding well despite the financial slump they face. But the amount is very high, we need at least 2 crores of rupees to charter flights for all 198 players to Abidjan. We still hope that the government may open the flights to Abidjan by next month so that they can travel by scheduled flights" Vinod said.
Abidjan, the major urban city of Ivory Coast is a door to west Africa where most of the players hail from. The players belong to Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia, Liberia, Sierra Leon, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.
The life of almost 200 African players, in the local 'sevens language', of black Panthers, or African elephants, or of Liberian lions, or of the people who hide swords in their boots now hang under the sword of uncertainty. Home is everything, either in a match or in life. As Adebayor said, "Africa is our home, drop us somewhere around, we can move there freely".