Slumdog Footballer: When India greeted the English Premier League
The palm-fringed backwaters of India’s Malabar Coast may sound like an exotic destination for a lad from England’s grim northeast to wind up in. Yet the reality for former Newcastle United and Crystal Palace defender Ramage – who captains Kochi-based ISL side Kerala Blasters – is quite the opposite.
“In Pune, the hotel was in the middle of the slums,” Ramage says, recalling a road trip midway through the season. “Kids were shitting on the curbs … washing in puddles.
“We bought 30 cheap footballs and 20 frisbees and handed them out. The next morning we sat in our room and watched them play with pure joy on their faces; it was my first experience of the extreme poverty.”
After his contract with Palace expired at the end of the 2014-15 season, Ramage – who had spent the two seasons since the Eagles’ promotion back to the English Premier League out on loan – was at a crossroads in his career when he was offered the chance of a short-term move to Kerala.
I broke down in the dressing room after as I knew I’d never pull on [Newcastle's] black and white shirt again.
“The club was a day from going out of business when I arrived because one of last season’s backers had pulled out,” explains Ramage. “The training facilities [at a local school] are completely different from anything I’ve ever seen. On the first day, there was no kit, the ‘D’ meant for the edge of the 18-yard box was actually painted on the six-yard box and the goals were brown with rust.”
But ‘Rambo’, as he is known to fans and teammates, is quick to point out that despite the initial problems, things have improved and there is a passion for the game in his adopted home that makes going into work a joy. He knows he’s giving something back to the community.
“Although the facilities are not yet as we’d expect them back home, it’s great to see the kids come out to watch and interact with us. We love to kick a ball around with them as their enthusiasm is infectious; we want to promote the game and help get the next generation involved. This is why the club is looking into developing a purpose-built training facility so we can nurture the talent from the grassroots up.”
A year-old upstart, the ISL is a curious phenomenon that amalgamates twilight-year marquee signings with journeymen pros and local players loaned from India’s I-league – the country’s official domestic competition – in a brash attempt to boost the footballing stature of a cricket-obsessed nation of almost 1.3 billion people that not so long ago lost to lowly Guam in a World Cup qualifier.
Eight sides – from Kerala in the south to Delhi in the north; Mumbai in the west to Guwahati in the remote northeast – compete over an intense two-and-a-half-month period in which teams face off home and away, with the top four advancing to the playoffs. Kolkata, Chennai, Goa and Pune are also represented, with the ISL encapsulating this vast country at every corner. No two games are on one day and no one day is without a game.
And the organisers must be doing something right. Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg all joined after its inception last year – when Kerala finished runners-up to Atletico de Kolkata – while Lucio, Florent Malouda and Simao Sambrosa are among the big-hitters this time round.
As is Ramage, who, after being released by Crystal Palace, received a call from then-manager Peter Taylor inviting him over. With a wife and two young daughters to consider, the initial response was: “Thanks, but no thanks.” But on reflection, with no offers forthcoming back home and a keenness to develop a coaching career in later life, the opportunity to make notable contacts while experiencing a new culture proved too good to refuse.
“There’s [something that resembles] an Arsenal academy in Kochi, Liverpool have one in Goa, and there’s talk of Newcastle and [Borussia] Dortmund coming out. There’s potential to work here after retiring – in coaching or ambassadorial roles – so the more I looked into it the more I thought I’d regret not giving it a go.”
The household names, meanwhile, don’t stop with the players. Zico, Roberto Carlos and Nicolas Anelka all ply their managerial trade across the subcontinent.
It’s a scenario that draws obvious comparisons with the original North American Soccer League (NASL) that boasted Pele, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer, yet in some ways resembles reality TV show I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!.
Ramage’s Kerala – who are also part-owned by revered cricketing god Sachin Tendulkar, India’s greatest ever sportsman – are synonymous with the ongoing teething problems.
Marquee player Carlos Marchena, whose illustrious career includes a World Cup winners’ medal with Spain, upped and left after disagreements over injuries and team selection with Taylor, who himself was shown the door following a difficult start that yielded one win from six and left the Blasters propping up the table.
“But we were not the only team with problems. David Platt [Pune City’s manager] had to go out and buy 40 training tops, shorts and socks when he arrived as they hadn’t been provided. However, things seem to be getting better now.”
The son of a former international rugby union referee, Ramage was signed by boyhood club Newcastle United aged 11. After making more than 50 appearances for the “Toon Army” alongside stars including Alan Shearer and Patrick Kluivert, the centre-back, by now 24, had to let his head rule his heart if he wanted first-team football.