Santosh Trophy: When a city elevated a championship

Malappuram has given a fresh lease of life to Santosh Trophy. The final, which host Kerala won in a penalty shootout, was attended by more than 27000 fans who hooted, chanted and roared their hearts out to make it a night to remember.

Published : May 12, 2022 11:13 IST

Lively: Fans cheer for their home team — Kerala — in Malappuram during the Santosh Trophy final.
Lively: Fans cheer for their home team — Kerala — in Malappuram during the Santosh Trophy final.

Lively: Fans cheer for their home team — Kerala — in Malappuram during the Santosh Trophy final.

During the Santosh Trophy National football championship held in the northern Kerala district of Malappuram recently, Shabbir Ali, one of India’s greatest strikers of all time, wrote on social media about how happy he was to see the huge crowds for the matches. He would have been happier if he was inside the Malappuram District Complex Stadium at Manjeri on that warm Monday night when Kerala took on Bengal in the final. The atmosphere was electric — the kind of which you do not often see for a football match in the country.

Nearly 27,000 fans had taken their seats long before the kick-off. Some of them had paid Rs. 800 in the black market for a gallery ticket which was Rs. 200. Those fans, however, got their money’s worth.

READ: Kerala’s passion for football featured as documentary film on FIFA’s streaming platform

They got to watch two well-balanced sides playing some exciting end-to-end football for a couple of hours. The regulation period failed to produce a goal; it was 1-1 after extra time; and the fans witnessed all the drama of a shoot-out which was decided only with the final kick. And they also got to see the team they backed with all the might of their vocal chords — Kerala — win.

If you were there watching the final – or the preceding matches over the week — you would be pardoned to assume Santosh Trophy was India’s most popular top-tier football tournament.

The fact is, the tournament has long lost its status as the country’s premier domestic championship. Gone are the days when you could see the likes of I.M. Vijayan or Bhaichung Bhutia displaying their skills in the tournament. Vijayan, though, was there to watch the action at Manjeri. Santosh Trophy is now more of a youth tournament and mostly considered like a selection trial for professional clubs to scout for lesser-known talents.

Then, why did all those thousands fill up the stands?

It is elementary, my dear Watson. This is Malappuram, where you can see houses painted in the colours of competing teams during the World Cup and matches are screened at the offices of political parties.

Find of the tournament: T.K. Jesin caught the eye of football fans and scouts alike by netting five goals in the semifinal against Karnataka and that too after coming on as a substitute 30 minutes into the match.

Malappuram certainly has given a fresh lease of life to the Santosh Trophy. It is no ISL, it is no I-League even, but it could throw up fresh talents.

This edition — the 75th — of the tournament certainly did. T.K. Jesin, one of Kerala’s heroes, has attracted the attention of ATK Mohun Bagan, according to Bino George, the man who coached the home team to a memorable triumph.

Jesin caught the eye when he netted five goals in the semifinal against Karnataka and that too after coming on as a substitute 30 minutes into the match, when Kerala was a goal down. He is fast and a fine finisher. Son of an autorikshaw driver from Malappuram, Jesin rose to stardom in no time. He wasn’t the only Kerala player who found himself in the limelight. There was the captain Jijo Joseph who not just scored some crucial goals but created them too.

READ:  Kerala's success, football frenzy a fresh lease of life for Santosh Trophy?

He was one of the main reasons why Kerala went all the way. Shortly after the greatest moment of his life, he announced his retirement from the Santosh Trophy and said that he now wanted a career as a professional footballer.

Other teams too boasted some fine players who would have interested professional clubs. Karnataka’s forward Sudheer Kotikela and Bengal’s striking duo of Fardin Ali Molla and Dilip Oraon also impressed.

Since all the matches were streamed live by the All India Football Federation’s Facebook page, team managements of all the I-League clubs would have been able to watch those exciting players in action. Some of them were also physically present to scout for talent. As for the streaming, more than nine lakh people have watched the video of the final posted on the AIFF’s YouTube channel. Another seven lakh watched the same video uploaded on another channel. The live-streaming video of the final on the AIFF’s Facebook page also had nearly 28,000 comments. Not in recent times has a sporting event of this stature attracted so much attention on social media.

Seventh heaven: The Kerala team won its seventh Santosh Trophy and its first title on home soil since 1993 with a win on penalties against West Bengal in the final.

It has also proved that it is not just the ISL or the European leagues that the football fans in India are interested in watching. Mind you, Santosh Trophy was not broadcast on any television channel. The way the regional dailies in Kerala went to town with the coverage certainly helped.

Malappuram has told the AIFF clearly that there is hope yet for the Santosh Trophy. The ball is very much in the federation’s court.

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