Santosh Trophy: Chance for Under-21 players to impress

Goa will face Meghalaya in the lung opener of a Group A league match of the Santosh Trophy at the SAG Athletics Stadium here on Sunday. The tournament is making a return to Goa after a gap of 21 years. Goa last won the trophy in 2009 when it hosted the tournament.

The Santosh Trophy returns to Goa after 21 years.   -  Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

 

The country’s cream of talent will be missing, yet the devalued 71 edition of Santosh Trophy National Football Championship, which returns to Goa after more than two decades, will hold relevance at least to some lesser known lights.

With the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) making it mandatory for teams to field at least three under-21 players in the playing eleven this season, there is something to look forward for the players who are on the margins. The AIFF this season has also shown its intent to dig deep for talents by sending two of its selectors to witness the matches and pick the best under-21 players for the Olympic team.

On the face of it, the tournament which will kick off on Sunday in the football crazy Goa looks an open contest with the presence of seven former champions. However, the times have changed and power has shifted from traditional heavyweights like 31-time former champions Bengal to defending champion Services which has been the most consistent team in the past five years. Four title wins in the last five years makes Services the team to beat. Retaining the core of the team that won the title last year, Services with sprinkling of players from Kerala is drawn in group A which has former champions West Bengal, host Goa, Meghalaya and Chandigarh for company.

Services Assistant coach Abilhash put things in perspective saying that AIFF new rule will hurt the department teams more than the State teams. "Our under-21 players who were recruited recentlry are little short on experience and have not settled down. It is bit of a worry. Bengal, Goa and even Chandigarh are good teams who can be dangerous on their day. It is an open tournament and I think Group A is tougher of the two groups,’’ he said.

Host Goa, which last won the title in 2009, will be looking for an ideal opportunity to end the title drought in its home soil. The team was quite dominant in the qualifiers but coach Mateus Costa was forced to rejig the squad after several first choice players left when the I league started. Nevertheless, the coach is hopeful that his young squad with the backing of home supporters will end the long title wait.

A lot is at stake for Kerala which qualified for the main draw. The team under Usman was impressive in the qualifiers. With a heady mix of youngsters and experienced players, Kerala is pitted alongside Punjab, Railways, Mizoram and Maharashtra in pool ‘B’. Coach Shaji said his team has prepared well and promised a good show in Goa.

The tournament will be played in three venues with Tilak Maidan in Vasco and GMC Athetic stadium in Bambolim hosting the majority of the matches. On Sunday, host Goa takes on Meghalaya while Bengal plays Chandigarh in Pool A.

The groups

Pool ‘A’: West Bengal, Meghalaya, Services, Goa and Chandigarh.

Pool ‘B’: Punjab, Railways, Mizoram, Kerala and Maharashtra.