On a usual Indian Super League matchday for Kerala Blasters, the home stadium of Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Kochi turns into a sea of yellow, synonymous with the jersey colour of the club.
A closer look at the east stand of the stadium and one will find a boisterous lot of supporters, distinct from all others. Sporting colourful tifos and massive banners, they keep the atmosphere buzzing with chants, viking claps, flashlight waves, smoke bombs, and a lot more.
They are Manjappada, the biggest fan group in the ISL and now, among the most popular fan clubs in India. This group also boasts one of the loudest set to fans who make their presence felt during matches involving the Indian team.
The fan club Manjappada embodies the passion and unending love that Keralites have had for football for ages. And being ISL’s largest fan group, their fan base is not only present in Kerala but across India and abroad.
“Kerala Blasters is more than a team,” Abhilash Raj, a BTech graduate who hails from Idukki, said to Scroll.in.
The 23-year-old became a Manjappada supporter in 2017 and now makes it a point to travel for all of Kerala Blasters’ games, including those on the road.
“Manjappada binds all die-hard football lovers together under a roof. For a long time, we didn’t have a team to support and Kerala Blasters was the one which brought us together. We have Gokulam Kerala too but Kerala Blasters is an emotion for us,” Raj said.
The making of Manjappada
The fan group was formed on Facebook with the name Kerala Blasters FC fans by Alleypey-based Subin Mathew, a project manager of a private firm in Kuwait, just after the inception of the club in 2014.
Mathew, alongside two other friends, was incharge of the Facebook page. Later in August 2015, the 32-year-old renamed the fan group as Manjappada which translates to the “yellow army” in Malayalam.
“Many group members suggested me to change the name as it would be difficult to pronounce but I felt it would click with the audience, that’s why I decided to keep it,” Mathew, who also supports Premier League side Manchester United, told Scroll.in.
But never would have Mathew foreseen that the follower-count of this group would someday multiply taking it into lakhs. During the second season of the ISL, Mathew created a WhatsApp group for the fan club. By that time, Manjappada only had around 50 followers, who would throng to the east gallery of the JLN stadium.
In 2016, Mathew convinced more members to join Manjappada’s WhatsApp group after posting the message on the fan club’s Facebook page. That’s when the following grew massively as Kerala Blasters fans from different districts of the state joined in.
Mathew assigned Manjappada members to form a WhatsApp group based on the district they belonged to and advised them to add more people to the group.
The message soon spread to Kerala Blasters supporters in other states including Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai among few others and later to those living abroad. At present, Manjappada has approximately 75 such WhatsApp groups.
What made it possible for thousands and thousands of members to join Manjappada is that it required no registration or membership fee and one could easily become a member by just being added to the WhatsApp group.
In co-ordination with Mathew and few other members through WhatsApp, these Manjappada district admins travel with their groups on a matchday, mostly through buses.
“We have active members in each group and tell them to come in single groups to the second tier of the east gallery,” said Mathew. “Many fans are from the northern belts of Kerala – Kozhikode, Malappuram, Alleppey, Kannur... they are very passionate about football.”
For the initial two seasons of the ISL, Manjappada purchased tickets online but since then, they are now allotted tickets through the KBFC management. Most of the group members are either college-goers or ones that have jobs but still manage to make time for Blasters.
“We treat one another as a family,” Manjappada’s KM Safuvan told Scroll.in. “The support that you see from our fans is all because of their passion. We wanted to emulate fan groups like how European clubs have.”
Standing up for what they want
Being a fan of a football club by no means is an easy task. It can be frustrating to support a team when they don’t end up on the winning side. In such cases, it’s normal for fans to turn their back on the club. Not Manjappada.
Despite Kerala Blasters never managing to win silverware in history, with two runners-up finishes for Kerala Blasters in 2014 and 2016 and two underwhelming campaigns (2015, 2017-’18), Manjappada have always supported the Kochi outfit through thick and thin since its inception. However, as a fan group, they haven’t been afraid to make their voices heard when needed.
The 2018-’19 ISL season, turned out to be a disaster for Kerala Blasters under manager David James. The Kochi-based side started with a win but disappointing results followed as the season progressed.
By then, many other supporter groups of Kerala Blasters had stopped turning up for matches, growing frustrated with the team’s playing style and James’ tactics.
It was then Manjappada stuck by the club in these testing times, although their patience too, began growing thin as the supporters didn’t witness any improvement with the team’s approach, with results severely continuing to dent Kerala Blasters’ playoff chances, game after game.
Hoping it would elicit a response from the team or the club management, Manjappada supporters continued going to stadiums but began staging protests, carrying banners with strong messages.
“That season, we staged protests during the mid-season,” revealed Raj. “We waited for a few games before the protests, hoping for things to improve but nothing did. Even after mistakes, the team was not performing up to the level which was needed. We felt David James had no ideas, no coordination with his players and that there were many internal issues within the team. So that is why we decided to protest against the management to show we’re done with this even though we love our team.”
After months and months of protests, which failed to have a positive impact on the side, Manjappada finally called for a boycott during a home match against Jamshedpur FC in December that season.
This decision was taken after Manjappada ran a Facebook a poll to know the views of their supporters and once the majority agreed, they called for the boycott. A fan club taking such a bold step had been a rarity in Indian football.
Manjappada fans returned to the stadium after that game but that didn’t prevent Kerala Blasters from finishing at the bottom of the table.
The situation didn’t change drastically even when Eelco Schattorie took over from James ahead of the 2019-’20 season. Blasters finished seventh the following season, marred by injuries to key players but the support from the Manjappada faithful was constant for the Dutchman as they were satisfied with the club’s intent and playing style.
At present, Manjappada has a following of close to six lakh across social media platforms.
There is a structure behind Manjappada as well. Every district wing consists of core group members, who coordinate with all supporters and activities of the fan club that are planned and managed by the working committee – the governing body of Manjappada.
The fan group continues to be active even besides football. For the past three years, Manjappada have been conducting social welfare events and charity programmes. They have done so even in the current circumstances amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
And through all the highs and lows Kerala Blasters have witnessed over the seasons, including constant managerial changes, Manjappada continues to stand behind their team, even as the club awaits its first trophy.
As Raj mentions, it’s not just a club, but an emotion.