Buzz missing as Santosh Trophy kicks off

On the face of it the 70th edition of Santosh Trophy, which kicks off on Monday, looks like an open contest with the presence of seven former champions making it interesting.

The Tamil Nadu football team which topped Group 'A' of the South Zone qualifying round to book a place in the Santosh Trophy main draw.   -  M. Vedhan

With the country’s leading stars busy in the I-league and barred from participation, the Santosh Trophy National Football Championship has been devalued into a second string tournament for the lesser known.

It cannot be more striking as the spartan surroundings at the venues – SEC Railway stadium and University stadium - in Nagpur, which is hosting the tournament for the first time, dovetails the obvious lack of excitement among the general public here. The buzz is certainly missing despite the city being one of the main centres of football in Maharashtra.

On the face of it the 70th edition of Santosh Trophy, which kicks off on Monday, looks like an open contest with the presence of seven former champions making it interesting. However, the times have changed and power has shifted from traditional heavyweights like 31-time former champions West Bengal to first time winner Mizoram and to department teams Railways and Services.

Services has been the most consistent team in the recent times winning the title three times in the last four years. With six players from Kerala, the defending champion Services has come with almost the same team that won the title last year. But it is not taking its rivals in pool A — Maharashtra, Mizoram, Railways and Jammu & Kashmir — ightly. Coach Shaji and his assistant Abhilash were happy with the preparation of the team and are hoping that Services would continue the consistent show this year as well.

As host this will be a good opportunity for Maharashtra to end its 16-year-old title drought. The young Maharashtra side, with five under-21 players, did well in the zonal qualifying round and it has raised expectations of the home fans. However, it will be a test of character for the young side against likes of Services, Railways and Mizoram.

Mizoram, the surprise packet of Santosh Trophy two year ago, is still an exciting team with bunch of talented stars and according to coaches it is the dark horse of the tournament.

History shows that Bengal and Goa are the two strongest teams in pool ‘B’. The Goan thrust will be powered by players from Dempo Goa, which was relegated from I-league. Goa topped its pool in West Zone qualifiers to qualify and has obvious edge over its rival as far as experience is concerned.

Though its big stars are away in I-league, Bengal is banking on players from Mohammendan Sporting and Kolkata senior division sides to deliver goods.

Tamil Nadu, which did well to qualify from South Zone in a group which included Kerala, will be hoping to carry on the momentum according to coach Robin Charles Raja who also played down the absence of captain Mohanraj and Karthik both of whom played in South Zone qualifiers.

With AIFF set to make it mandatory for teams to have at least five under-21 players in Santosh Trophy and with some teams already complying it, the tournament presents an ideal stage for new talents to emerge. Meanwhile to prevent manipulation, the AIFF has decided to hold the matches of both pools simultaneously at the two venues.

On the opening day, host Maharashtra will take on Jammu & Kashmir in pool ‘A’ while Mizoram takes on Railways in pool `B’.

The pools

Pool ‘A’: Services, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Mizoram and Railways,

Pool ‘B’: Punjab, West Bengal, Goa, Tamil Nadu and Assam.