After 11 seasons as a professional, 13 international caps and more than 100 games in club football, Anas Edathodika will finally play his first season for a Kerala club. It's a moment he has long waited for. "From the time Kerala Blasters was born, I wanted to play for them," he says. It's also a bittersweet occasion: Kerala is still reeling from the impact of August's devastating floods that left almost 500 people dead and forced at least a million to leave their homes.
Still, it's an opportunity for Anas to do something for his home state because he knows -- he is certain -- that every successful tackle he makes will bring some cheer, some comfort to his fans.
The floods are fresh in his mind. "I saw a mother holding her child lying in the mud, both dead," he tells ESPN in an exclusive interview. "There were a couple of days we didn't sleep." His family -- mother, wife, two children -- were worried about water entering their house. "We slept in the morning," he says. "At night we were like security guards, guarding our homes, constantly vigilant."
There are other stories of tragedy that he can share. Of a chicken vendor who went to catch his runaway birds with his friends and never returned home -- all of them died. Of Zakeer Mundampara, his Kerala Blasters teammate, who was lucky. "He had to swim home to take his passport to come to pre-season in Thailand," Anas says. "No passport, no Thailand. He eventually came four days late." Of meeting a man who hadn't eaten for seven days. All of this reminded him of one thing: you have more than you think, be grateful for it.
Anas lives in Malappuram, one of least-affected areas during the Kerala floods, but the water levels were high. "The situation was serious, but we tried to lighten the mood," he says. "So we went out, waded through knee-deep water to reach our tea shop and had a cup of our usual kattan chaya (black tea)."
Easing the tension at home was easy, but he is aware that others will take much longer to get back to their normal lives. "Everybody is talking about the floods, the pain, the misery, about people lost, people dead," he says. "Maybe we can make people happy for some time at least if Kerala Blasters become champions." He takes a moment to say the next few words. "Their happiness will not be complete, but at least 15 per cent in their minds they will feel better, forget about all that happened. Just feel that joy of becoming a champion, you know? That's why all the players have mentally prepared to fight and work more. People are messaging us, saying: 'Bring the trophy to Kerala.'"
The last time Anas played for Kerala was in the Santosh Trophy eight years ago; Kerala lost 1-0 to Mizoram in the pre-quarters. He hates what happened that evening in Kolkata. "At the 60-minute mark, I felt my hamstring. I came out to put a tape on it and during that time Mizoram scored, and we lost. That was the worst," he says, closing his eyes as if to wish the memory away. "The match was tough, but I felt that I couldn't do enough for Kerala. Inshallah, I hope this time I'm able to do better."
Kerala didn't have a club in the I-League when Anas began his professional club career with Mumbai FC. So ever since the ISL began, he only wanted one thing: wear the Kerala Blasters yellow. "The fans, the crowd, the atmosphere, that feeling inside the stadium, the jeering for the opposition. When I saw those things, I wanted to wear the yellow. Finally, I'm getting the chance," he says.
But because of being banned by the All India Football Federation over a scuffle during a Super Cup game between FC Goa and his former side Jamshedpur FC in April, Anas will miss the first three games of the ISL season.
He's now a household name in Kerala, a close second only to his Blasters teammate CK Vineeth. When Vineeth did a Facebook Live event during the club's preseason in Thailand, he was flooded with comments such as "Where is Anas?" and "We want to see Anas ka (brother)." Vineeth had to go find him eventually. From almost becoming a bus driver, like his father, Anas now has fan pages dedicated to him ('Anas Edathodika fanatics' for one), has his own hashtag (#TeamAE15), has graced the cover of Malayalam magazines, and is the face of Mallapuram. After months of being badgered, Anas recently agreed to a felicitation ceremony in Kondotty, his birthplace. The open-jeep parade that day ended in a gala evening with dance and music.
"I don't like these things -- blocking the traffic, making noise and then people dancing in the middle of the road. We will disturb a lot of people. But after playing for the national team, they said: 'You have to come now'. I saw the love coming from them, and I just couldn't say no."
He has even had a Malayalam film proposal offered to him, much like Captain, the film based on VP Sathyan, the centre-back who won more than 80 caps for India. "There is a line in that film," Anas' eyes light up as he tries to remember. "Something like, 'I don't want to be remembered for scoring goals, but I want to be remembered for stopping them.' When I went for practice one day in school, I heard about his suicide. That was the day I came to know about him. He's my inspiration. When I think of a defender, the first person that comes to mind is Sathya ettan (brother)."
Anas, 31, is not considered in the same breath as Sathyan yet, and he regrets not playing for India earlier in his career, but he has left a mark in Kerala. So what would he want his legacy to be? "To tell you the truth, I don't know," he says. "I don't know how people will treat me in the future. Everybody treats me well now, but I would never really understand how they would see my legacy. Wherever I go, there is huge respect. When people give you so much respect, you feel like giving the same respect back to them. Eventually you feel a lot of respect to football. You then think about how football has given us this respect. It's a different feeling. If I don't give back what they are giving me, I'm sure the future generations of players will not get any respect. If we respect the people, our future generations will receive that respect too."