Santosh Trophy grapples with the changing state of Indian football

In the 21st century, the Santosh Trophy remains popular in West Bengal, Kerala, and the Northeast, but the players’ calibre doesn’t match its storied legacy.

Published : Mar 18, 2024 11:43 IST , Chennai - 7 MINS READ

Services team celebrates after winning the Santosh Trophy against Goa during the 77th Santosh Trophy football championship in Yupia in Arunachal Pradesh.
Services team celebrates after winning the Santosh Trophy against Goa during the 77th Santosh Trophy football championship in Yupia in Arunachal Pradesh. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR/ The Hindu
infoIcon

Services team celebrates after winning the Santosh Trophy against Goa during the 77th Santosh Trophy football championship in Yupia in Arunachal Pradesh. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR/ The Hindu

In the post-independence era, the National Football Championship for Santosh Trophy, started in 1941 by Sir Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhary, the then-president of the Indian Football Association, was the closest the country had to a national tournament.

Though competitions such as the Rovers Cup (started in 1890) and Durand Cup (started in 1888) continued, the Santosh Trophy did not lose its sheen, with coaches and players from the national team taking part.

Balai Das Chatterjee, the first coach of the Indian football team, won the Santosh Trophy six times with Bengal between 1959 and 1969.

Almost half of India’s gold medal-winning squad at the 1962 Asian Games comprised Santosh Trophy champions Peter Thangaraj, Chuni Goswami, P. K. Banerjee, D. Ethiraj, Tulsidas Balaram, and Pradyut Barman.

O. Chandrasekhar also got added to the list when he lifted the trophy in 1963 with Maharashtra.

Santosh Trophy champions in the 1962 Asian Games squad
Peter Thangaraj – 1960-61 (Services), 1962-63 (Bengal), 1964-65 (Railways)
Chuni Goswami – 1955–56, 1958–59 (Bengal)
P. K. Banerjee – 1958-59 (Bengal), 1961–62, 1966–67 (Railways)
D. Ethiraj – 1960–61 (Services)
Tulsidas Balaram – 1956–57 (Hyderabad), 1958–59, 1959–60, 1962–63 (Bengal)
Pradyut Barman – 1958–59, 1959–60 (Bengal), 1961–62 (Railways)

In the 21st century, the Santosh Trophy continues to draw considerable attention from football enthusiasts in West Bengal, Kerala, and the Northeast. Nonetheless, the calibre of players participating in the tournament falls short of the standards set by those who established its storied legacy.

When a packed stadium at the Malappuram District Sports Complex Stadium cheered every move by the local team, Kerala, against Bengal in the 2022 Santosh Trophy final, neither team featured a national team regular.

Instead, youngsters such as Jesin TK, Noufal PN, and Dilip Oraon took centre stage, helping Kerala win the title in alternate years for the first time since 2005. 

In the latest edition, almost all the players were amateur footballers. Phijam Sanathoi Meetei, the highest goalscorer in the tournament, had changed clubs four times in three years after being released by the reserve side of the Kerala Blasters.

S. Rajesh, who became the fifth-highest goalscorer in the Santosh Trophy, was once a dependable attacking option for Gokulam Kerala.

The COVID-infused break and Railways’ continued absence from the National Championships saw him struggle for a spot in the squad. The 31-year-old, a record-holder in the Santosh Trophy, now plays for Rail Wheel Factory FC Bangalore, a club outside the top three divisions of Indian football: the Indian Super League (ISL), I-League, and I-League 2.

Once considered a prestigious crown in domestic football, the Santosh Trophy has transformed into a showcase for amateur and struggling players.

Fall from grace

Santosh Trophy’s biggest challenge arrived late in the 20th century when the National Football League (NFL) was started by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 1996, the first organised nationwide league football system in the country.

India’s national team players continued to play in both tournaments as part of state federations and clubs, respectively.

Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia played for East Bengal and JCT Mills in the NFL, winning the Santosh Trophy twice with Bengal in 1995 and 1999.

I. M. Vijayan, another former skipper, won consecutive Santosh Trophy titles in 1993 and 1994 with Kerala and Bengal, respectively. He played for Kerala Police and Mohun Bagan, both of whom eventually played in the NFL.

Vijayan and Bhaichung continued to represent Kerala and Bengal, respectively, with the former reaching the final five more times with his home state (1987–88, 1988–89, 1989–90, 1990–91, 1999–2000).

FILE PHOTO: Bhaichung Bhutia scores a ‘bicycle kick’ goal in the Santosh Trophy final for Bengal.
FILE PHOTO: Bhaichung Bhutia scores a ‘bicycle kick’ goal in the Santosh Trophy final for Bengal. | Photo Credit: K_GAJENDRAN/ The Hindu
lightbox-info

FILE PHOTO: Bhaichung Bhutia scores a ‘bicycle kick’ goal in the Santosh Trophy final for Bengal. | Photo Credit: K_GAJENDRAN/ The Hindu

However, the NFL, which was later rebranded as the I-League in 2007, eventually gained preference for national team players and administrators of Indian football.

“I wouldn’t personally play in the Santosh Trophy. It should be converted into an age-group event. It should also be mandatory for national players to participate in the NFL and Fed Cup (which has now been replaced by the Kalinga Super Cup),” Bhaichung said in an interview in 2007.

The death knell arrived in 2010 when it became a subject of disdain for the then-national team head coach Bob Houghton.

The Englishman who had previously taken Malmo to the Champions League final (1979) was apoplectic when Delhi’s captain Sunil Chhetri, then a young quick forward playing for Delhi and attracting offers from clubs in England and the USA, was injured (right ankle) in a clash against Indian Railways (in May 2009), ruling him out of the Nehru Cup.

“If you are serious about qualifying for the World Cup, then you should forget playing nonsensical and stupid tournaments like the Santosh Trophy, Durand Cup, and the IFA Shield,” Houghton said in a press conference.

“Professionals playing the Santosh Trophy against a bunch of amateurs at the end of the season doesn’t make any sense. Do you believe Steven Gerrard will play for some hotchpotch trophy at the end of the season?”

On January 29, 2010, the AIFF ruled that the national team players were barred from the tournament.

Talking to  Sportstar, Satheevan Balan, a former scout for the Indian national team, elaborated on the events that further deteriorated the status of the Santosh Trophy.

“Whenever the I-league players were available, Goa and Bengal had an advantage over other teams in the Santosh Trophy,” said Balan, the coach of Kerala in the last edition of the tournament.

FILE PHOTO: Satheevan Balan, the coach of the Kerala Santosh Trophy team.
FILE PHOTO: Satheevan Balan, the coach of the Kerala Santosh Trophy team. | Photo Credit: K Ragesh/ The Hindu
lightbox-info

FILE PHOTO: Satheevan Balan, the coach of the Kerala Santosh Trophy team. | Photo Credit: K Ragesh/ The Hindu

“Following complaints, the AIFF decided to turn the Santosh Trophy into a tournament mostly for young players (in 2015), who didn’t have other platforms to excel,” he added.

The AIFF made it mandatory for teams to have five Under-21 players in the squad and three in the playing 11. It also decided not to allow the I-league, ISL (which had begun by then), and second-division players to take part in the Santosh Trophy.

Balan added that during Shaji Prabhakaran’s tenure, the Federation decided to scrap the U-21 rule and allowed the reserve players from the I League, ISL, and 2nd division squads to play in the Santosh Trophy. 

An underrated assembly line

As a national tournament for state federations, it has become an underrated assembly line for young players to find a footing in professional football.

Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco, two Indian Super League — India’s top-division — winners with ATK Mohun Bagan (now called Mohun Bagan Super Giant), were both part of their respective sides — West Bengal and Goa — in the Santosh Trophy in the 2016–17 season.

Manvir scored the winner against Colaco’s Goa in the final to win the title.

“A lot of developmental work over the years has yielded results in the states, and we see a lot of improvement in the standard of Indian football,” Charles Dias, the current coach of Goa, told Sportstar.

“You can see a lot of state teams are now playing a much better level of the game. That is a good sign, which you can already see happening in the Santosh Trophy.”

Goa head coach Charles Ador Dias along with captain Mohame Ali talking to the media on the eve of the 77th Santosh Trophy Football final in the Golden Jubilee stadium Yupia in Arunachal Pradesh.
Goa head coach Charles Ador Dias along with captain Mohame Ali talking to the media on the eve of the 77th Santosh Trophy Football final in the Golden Jubilee stadium Yupia in Arunachal Pradesh. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR/ The Hindu
lightbox-info

Goa head coach Charles Ador Dias along with captain Mohame Ali talking to the media on the eve of the 77th Santosh Trophy Football final in the Golden Jubilee stadium Yupia in Arunachal Pradesh. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR/ The Hindu

M. Satyanarayanan, the acting General Secretary of the AIFF, further added that while the ecosystem of club football has shifted towards corporate ownership, the co-existence of the same with legacy tournaments will ensure the success of football in India.

“In our country, club football and inter-state football are different. Club football is more individual efforts of private entrepreneurs or corporates with deep pockets, which cannot be compared with an inter-state event where the initiative lies with the state associations,” he said.

“Club football and inter-state football will have to coexist. For example, we have U-13 and U-15 events for clubs in Khelo India games, whereas the AIFF has also started the U-13, U-15, and U-17 leagues for the states.”

Over its 83-year history, the Santosh Trophy has evolved its format, outlasting competitions like the Rovers Cup. Now, it aligns better with the club football calendar. Through these changes, it has maintained its reputation for grooming young talent, often catching the attention of national team selectors.

On March 14, Phijam was named among the potential players for India’s under-23 friendlies against Malaysia, showcasing how the Santosh Trophy continues to serve its purpose of nurturing promising players alongside stars from the ISL and I-League.

“The Hero Santosh Trophy used to be the pinnacle of Indian football in our playing days. I feel today, the tournament is all the more important,” former Indian forward and manager Shabbir Ali told the AIFF website.

“Because it gives representation to more states than the Hero ISL or the Hero I-League. They all need to be on the football map. You can’t leave out so many places in such a big country.”

More stories from this issue

Sign in to unlock all user benefits
  • Get notified on top games and events
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign up / manage to our newsletters with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early bird access to discounts & offers to our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment