Sushanth Mathew: Kerala fans still message me saying 'that goal' gives them goosebumps

'Goal' - probably the most powerful word in the realm of the beautiful game. The seemingly simple act of putting the ball in the 24ftx8ft frame not only has the power to change matches or the outcome of competitions but also has the capacity to change lives. On the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) stage, perhaps few can relate to the statement more than former Kerala Blasters FC star Sushanth Mathew.

The midfielder, who recently announced his retirement from professional football, may have played just 56 minutes over four matches for Kerala back in the inaugural Hero ISL 2014 season but is a regular feature in the club's folklore, courtesy a stunning strike, a worldie according to many, against arch-rivals Chennaiyin FC.

‘That strike’…

The just-retired 41-year-own, in a recent interview with recalled the special strike and said, "I must say I have a lot of fantastic memories from my football career - sharing dressing rooms and playing with world football stars, etc. But ‘that’ goal, I will cherish always. That goal made me a hero to the Kerala fans, I so adore, almost overnight. I still get messages from fans and well-wishers saying that they still have goosebumps whenever they watch that goal. A lot of them keep insisting that it is the best goal in Hero ISL so far. I feel very fortunate to be remembered so fondly."

It's hard to argue that Mathew's strike has become one of the most remarkable goals in Hero ISL history and the strike still gets referenced by Kerala fans all over social media, and for good reason. In that moment and time, all the stars seemed to have aligned perfectly to culminate into that magical moment. Kerala were the underdogs heading into the semi-final clash against table-toppers and neighbouring rivals Chennaiyin, having qualified for the knockout stage by the skin of their teeth. But they shocked their more-fancied rivals in front of their home fans, racing to a 2-0 first-half lead. After keeping Chennaiyin at bay for the entire second half, the Blasters sealed off their victory in spectacular fashion in the dying minutes. Kerala-born Mathew received the ball almost 40 yards out, cut inside former Manchester United icon Mikael Silvestre, playing for Chennaiyin back then, and let one rip. The ball curled around legendary Italian defender Alessandro Nesta and nestled into the corner of the goal to send the capacity Kochi crowd in attendance into a frenzy.

The late goal would go on to play a major role in greater context too as Chennaiyin went on to pull three back in the reverse leg taking the tie to Extra Time. A Stephen Pearson goal eventually handed Kerala passage to the final but without Mathew's third in the first-leg, Chennaiyin would be the one joining ATK in the Hero ISL 2014 decider, and not Kerala. Reminiscing about what it meant for him as a local Kerala boy to play such a big hand in driving the team to the inaugural season’s final, Mathew stated, "It was a huge deal for me being from Kerala. It was a valuable goal which helped the Blasters reach the first-ever Hero ISL final. It meant a lot for everyone in the squad and me too!"

The dark days…

However, all of Mathew's memories of the Hero ISL are not quite as cheerful. In the second season, he moved to FC Pune City and after playing just thrice for the Stallions suffered a horrific injury following a late tackle by former France international Florent Malouda. The injury kept Mathew out for the season and marked the end of his time in the Hero ISL. Recalling the incident, the 41-year-old recalled, "That was a really dark time for me. To be honest, it was a very dangerous tackle. I was a bit heartbroken that the tackle came from a great World Cup player like Malouda. I was a huge fan of the France team he played in and even put up a big team poster of that team in my town before World Cup. After that injury, I couldn’t play again that whole season. I regained my fitness after a lot of treatments and rehab, but was never quite the same as I was before it."

"But I was strong, never surrendered, worked hard and managed to play for a few more years. As we all know, as professional players, these all are part of this beautiful game," he immediately bounced back.

Kerala fans always close to the heart…

The enigmatic former player swiftly transitioned to his better memories - one of the Blasters fans. "I loved playing wherever I played but yes, I still do miss that Kochi stadium, wearing that yellow jersey and playing in front of these electrifying fans. Fans are the real motivation for every performer and I’m fortunate to have felt the warmth from the Kerala fans. Their love and passion are unbelievable. Hats off."

Hero ISL changed India’s perception of football…

Well, because of the Hero ISL, Indian football’s future is really bright. After Hero ISL's inception in 2014, our nation's football culture and the entire atmosphere has changed. You know, every kid wants to play football now. Parents want to send their children to football academies, almost everyone started watching live football, lots of academies came up across the nation. Because of the Hero ISL, our local players are getting the chance to rub shoulder with international players and learn more about the game."

Signing off with a note on his retirement, Mathew revealed, "Actually I wanted to play on for one or two more seasons but my present situation won't allow me. I have to stay away from home for so many days and also, my fitness is not perfect like before. By the grace of God, I have played for over 20 years. I have been fortunate that I was able to go on for so long but it was the time to hang up my boots."

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