Santosh Trophy: Finding feet on foreign soil

The Santosh Trophy’s Riyadh rendezvous stirred up Indian football.

Published : Mar 16, 2023 10:00 IST

Proud moment: The triumphant Karnataka team with the Santosh Trophy.
Proud moment: The triumphant Karnataka team with the Santosh Trophy. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Proud moment: The triumphant Karnataka team with the Santosh Trophy. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Novelties are a rare occurrence in Indian football, especially when it comes to domestic tournaments. There is a state of mundane perpetuity that is attached to the Leagues and Cup events. Football aficionados found a welcome breach in the supposed sense of banality when Karnataka lifted the Santosh Trophy at the King Fahd International Stadium in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. The champion, the championship and the unusual locale combined to provide the freshness that the sport has been longing for to sneak out of its selfsame boundaries.

The Santosh Trophy’s Riyadh rendezvous did stir up the Indian football scenario with some appreciating it, while some expressed their doubts on its feasibility.

The All India Football Federation’s decision to accept the invitation of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation to have the National men’s football championship at its showpiece venue suddenly brought the competition for inter-State supremacy out of oblivion. “We wanted to have a disruptive strategy for repositioning and bringing back the glory days of the Santosh Trophy. After all the deliberations and discussions, we have concluded that taking the Santosh Trophy outside India is one of the better options to bring back the focus on the tournament as it is one of the most prestigious competitions of India,” the secretary general of AIFF, Shaji Prabhakaran, said.

The factor worked well for the National federation’s objective as Karnataka regained the Santosh Trophy after five decades, 54 years to be precise. The state, which has been witnessing a metamorphosis of its multi-tiered League system over the last few years, made a powerful statement of its arrival as it defeated Services and Meghalaya in the semifinal and final respectively. “The decision to take the Santosh Trophy to Saudi Arabia aligns with our overall vision for football in India. We want to have a huge impact at the grassroots level and that’s precisely what it will do because when these players come from Saudi, they will return as better and more confident players. It will help encourage and increase grassroots participation. That would also drive local competitions and create an aspirational path for players to get into the State teams,” Shaji added while insinuating the significant, ideological shift happening in the AIFF thought process.

The change in regime in the Football House, the headquarters of the AIFF, has brought in a perceptible shift in the priorities governing the sport in the country. The 82-year-old tournament finds itself in the limelight as the AIFF launched a revamped roadmap of development and named it ‘Vision 2047’.

Fanfare: Indian supporters came in large numbers to witness the matches.
Fanfare: Indian supporters came in large numbers to witness the matches. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Fanfare: Indian supporters came in large numbers to witness the matches. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“The Santosh Trophy is one tournament that used to see the best of Indian footballers participating for the State teams. It was the tournament that showcased the best of footballing talents of each State in India. The Santosh Trophy will bring back focus on State-level football in a bigger way. We will be able to build the capacity of the State as well. We can already see the impact as more people are talking about the Santosh Trophy,” said the AIFF president, Kalyan Chaubey.

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Canvassing for the revival of Santosh Trophy appeared to be AIFF’s immediate concern as Chaubey, a former India goalkeeper, himself experienced the charm of the inter-State competition during his playing days. The very idea of having the final stage of the Santosh Trophy in Saudi Arabia was revealed in October last year immediately after the AIFF president and secretary general signed an MoU with the Saudi Arabian football federation. This happened roughly a month after Chaubey and his panel swept the AIFF elections to assume power.

“One of the vital points for our future is to revitalise such tournaments for the betterment of football in India. Hope Santosh Trophy becomes what it used to be,” the senior men’s National team head coach Igor Stimac said in an interview on the AIFF website just before the start of the Saudi Arabian leg.

“Playing it (Santosh Trophy) in a foreign country is great for the teams. It’s an amazing exposure for the teams and the players to play, where many great footballers have played. I’m sure there will also be great infrastructure. The teams that have reached the semifinals will get to witness all that, which is great,” Stimac added. The national coach’s belief came as a good incentive for AIFF as the Stimac’s predecessors had always batted for a club league replacing every other tournament in the country.

The football infrastructure around King Fahd International Stadium was indeed world-class. It was the same venue that hosted the Spanish and Italian Super Cup matches in January with the giants like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan enthralling the football fans of Riyadh. The media in Saudi Arabia showed a lot of interest for the Santosh Trophy with numerous articles appearing on different media portals and some local news channels also including the details about the tournament in their telecast schedule. About 2000 Indian expatriates living in Riyadh turned up with drums and cymbals to cheer for the finalists.

“I can’t tell you enough about how important it used to be when we were footballers. Many of us got jobs after playing well in the Santosh Trophy. There’s still a lot of gap between the grassroots and the professional level. This tournament can bridge that gap. It can provide some level of security for those who cannot turn professional,” said the legendary Shabbir Ali, who travelled to Riyadh along with his AIFF executive committee colleagues to have a first-hand experience of the event.

Karnataka displayed the benefits of having a proper State league by fielding a selection of footballers picked up from various teams playing the Bangalore Super Division League.

The level of professionalism shown by the players like Robin Yadav, Jacob John, Bekey Oram and P. Ankith spoke a lot about the development happening around the initiatives of Bengaluru FC academy (situated in Bellary) which provided for a number of players in the team. Karnataka seemed to make the most of the conditions and outplayed a strong Services (3-1) in the semifinals before prevailing over Meghalaya (3-2) in the final. Meghalaya, which, for long, has been a nursery of football talents in the country, made it to its maiden final appearance beating former champion Punjab 2-1.

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