What’s this format and why is it so popular in Kerala

For the past couple of days, FIFA’s twitter handle has been posting fantasy teams for Sevens Football, a form of the game very popular in the state of Kerala. They picked players like any of us would when choosing a fantasy team – arbitrarily. They had different teams: Your usual suspects in Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar as well as those you wouldn’t normally associate with fantasy teams of this kind, like Idrissa Gueye and Casemiro (more on that later).

But what exactly is Sevens Football, and how big is it in Kerala?

What is Sevens?

As the name suggests, it’s played seven-players-to-a-side, on dirt pitches across Kerala (generally concentrated in the north and central regions). The typical Sevens season starts in November and winds up by May-end (they do not play during Kerala’s long, heavy monsoon season). There are around 600 tournaments of varying sizes conducted by various bodies and club associations. This can range from small tournaments held between local youth clubs that comprise only of boys from the area to big-money ones between teams that often have foreign imports (typically from West Africa).

How big is it?

The games are played with either no stands or temporary wooden stands (called galleries) erected around the dirt pitches, and are almost always well attended. After all, Kerala is one of those parts of the world where football rests fairly high up on social priorities. As KT Ahmedkutty, an owner of a Sevens club, told ESPN when the COVID-19 enforced lockdown put a stop to sevens for a while: “You know how liquor addicts get withdrawal symptoms when they can’t have their daily drink? I have those when there is no football. It’s driving me insane”

In regions where Sevens is played, it’s a way of life. Passions run high between clubs, but the beauty of this format comes from the investment neutrals put in it – people who just want to appreciate good football and will back any side who entertains and fights and scores goals.

How do you play Sevens?

Well, like any other form of the game. But with a tighter pitch (and demanding crowds watching), though, there’s a premium on technical skill and the ability to use your imagination to create space where they ought to be none. Think of it this way: if Ronaldinho were given a choice of playing just one form of the game, this would probably be it.

Equally, though, the refereeing is… generous, and games can get very physical, very fast. Which is where FIFA’s imaginary team of bruisers (Casemiro, Gueye, Jan Oblak, Antonio Rudiger, Ruben Dias, Dusan Vlahovic and Darwin Nunez) might actually do much better than what the general voting pattern on their handle would suggest. (The Bruisers lost to Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Captains’ team 13.7% to 86.3%!)

Who would win this fantasy Sevens tournament?

If put to a popular vote, any teams that contain Messi and Ronaldo will always do well; but all things considered we would go for the flair kings: Allison Becker, David Alaba, Kalidou Koulibaly, Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane and… Neymar Jr. That’s a lovely blend of physicality, technical ability and pure flamboyance – the qualities that make for the best Sevens teams.

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