Hindu Muslim Christian Football Club – When secularist ideals married football in Kerala
Politics and football didn’t join hands in Kerala for the first time in 2020. It started in 1935, if not earlier, when a few young men of different religions decided to join hands to start a football club.
On the verandas of the YMCA building in Kottayam, a young man waited restlessly for his friends to decide. He was possessed by an idea. A vision that had been sparked by a letter that had reached him from the other side of the Western Ghats. An invitation to play a football tournament in Dindigul.
News about this talented footballer named Meeran had travelled far and wide, even to the leeward side of the mighty mountain range. The organisers in Dindigul had sent a letter seeking his representation in their local football tournament.
But there was a problem.
Parayil Ommer Vaidyar Meeran Sahib had no football team to take part in the event. So he had reached out to his two close friends – B Madhavan Nair, popularly known as Poonjan, and Issac Puthara – for help.
Together, sitting on the veranda (Meeran later told football historian Varu KJ they had no money to afford a room in YMCA), they decided to take part in the competition. Three young men, three talented footballers, representing three different religions, and drunk in the idea of a new India that was fast emerging due to continued protests across the country, decided to form a team and call it the Hindu Muslim Christian (HMC) Football Club.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
“There was nobody in South India who could dribble past Poonjan. He was easily the best defender of our times,” said Meeran Sahib, when Varu met him in 1971.
It wasn’t entirely surprising that HMC went on to become one of Kerala’s best football clubs in the pre-Independence era. With Issac Puthira and Madhavan Nair in defence, the team soon became the fan favourite in the region. They played all tournaments without discrimination -- sevens (seven-a-side), nines (nine-a-side) and elevens (eleven-a-side).
According to Meeran, almost all good footballers from the state in that era have played for HMC at some point or the other. Mepral Achankunju, Indra Balan, Thengumadathil Skaria, Velanthara Mathan… the list is endless. The only talented player who he distinctly remembered not playing for the club was Kodiyatt Unni or more popularly known as Vaapu. The forward, according to Meeran the best of his times, was an integral part of the Young Challengers – a team from Thiruvananthapuram – remains the only player Meeran failed in convincing to join HMC. The Parayil house, Meeran's ancestral property in Kottayam, was the headquarters for the club and used to house around 30-40 players at the same time.
Meeran himself was a versatile player. “He was like Johan Cruyff,” says Varu KJ. He could play well in any position of the pitch and off the field, he had a charisma that inspired footballers. “It was hard for a footballer to say no if Meeran Sahib invited him to HMC,” adds Varu. Like Cruyff, Meeran was also a great manager who understood what worked best in the game. He is believed to have provided opportunities to a lot of footballers who went on to dominate football in the 50s and 60s.
When East Bengal came calling
Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the ruler of Travancore in the 30s and the 40s, was an avid supporter of the beautiful game and used to host football tournaments frequently. HMC used to be a regular in these competitions but things changed for Kerala football when in 1944 Kolkata giants East Bengal accepted the invitation and travelled south for the annual football event. It was during this tournament that the big club scouted PB Mohammed Sali (also spelt Saleh), also known as Kottayam Sali.
The winger was one of the most exciting footballers to watch, driving forward with pace and purpose, and after the tournament, the East Bengal unit convinced the HMC player to relocate to Kolkata. Sali was an instant success in Kolkata and even went on captain the Indian football giants during his time there. He also played in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics for the Indian national team (second Malayali after TM Varghese to play for India) and was a vital cog in the side that won Gold in 1951 Delhi ASIAD (Asian Games).
It is not clear when the club exactly shut shop. Some say the club became inactive by the 60s while there are other claims of how the club went on to play small tournaments till 2005. A more organized approach to football post the formation of the All Indian Football Federation and a clear distinction between Sevens and 11s tournaments led to the slow disintegration of the football club. The 1954 edition of Kottayam’s prestigious Mammen Mappillai tournament remains one of the last tournaments where HMC performed well. They were runners up in the edition but the organisers were so impressed by Meeran’s team that from thereon the runners up trophy of the event was called the Meeran Sahib trophy.
More than football
Meeran Sahib passed away in 1973 and was buried in Kottayam Thirunakkara mosque.
In a time where India’s founding ideology of being a secularist nation is facing its toughest challenge in the country’s brief history as an independent nation, the story of Hindu Muslim Christian football club should act as a stark reminder of what our forefathers had envisioned in this country - a state bound by the unity in diversity.
Football, across the world, has always had deep links with the politics and the ‘people’s sport’ has once again been at the forefront as the country’s citizens protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC).
Azadi cries have echoed around football venues in Kerala. Recently, the sport’s enthusiasts gathered under the banner of ‘football against fascism’ to express their disapproval of the controversial CAA. But politics and football didn’t join hands in Kerala for the first time in 2020. It started in 1935, if not earlier when a few young men of different religions decided to join hands to start a football club.