Santosh Trophy 2019-20: South Zone qualifiers from tomorrow

Six south zone teams are split into two groups and the winner of each group will advance to the final stage of the tournament, to be held in Mizoram.

Kerala team training ahead of the Santosh Trophy tournament at Kozhikode.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

From being Indian football's most prestigious domestic tournament, the Santosh Trophy has come a long way -- down.

Changes in rules that restricted the age of the players and the introduction of the long season of a national league have all contributed to the decline of the tournament, which used to enjoy so much popularity and whip up tremendous passion, from both footballers and fans.

It is now a sidelight that struggles to gain attention, especially at a time when the Indian Super League (ISL) is on and the I-League is around the corner. For the country's young players though, it is an excellent opportunity.

Some of them would be in action over the next week at the Corporation Stadium, as the South Zone qualifiers of the Santosh Trophy kicks off on Tuesday. Six teams are split into two groups.

READ| Santosh Trophy 2019-20: Full schedule, fixtures

The winner of each group will advance to the final stage of the tournament, to be held in Mizoram, early next year. Host Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra make up Group A, while Karnataka, Telengana and Puducherry will battle it out in Group B.

Since a team gets only two matches, the margin for error is very small. That is something Bino George, Kerala's coach will particularly be wary of. In the 2018-19 edition of the tournament, Kerala had failed to qualify from the South Zone leg, despite being the defending champion of the tournament (at the National level).

Bino, who had trained Gokulam Kerala FC for both its appearances in the I-League, would not want to relive the disappointment of his predecessor V.P. Shaji. Kerala does look strong on paper, but as it found out in the last edition, things could go awfully wrong in a format like this.

“There is hardly a second chance, and that is a worry,” Bino told Sportstar. “It would have been better if the tournament was held on a round-robin basis as the teams would have got more matches then.”

He is confident of Kerala's chances. “But Tamil Nadu is a strong rival in our group,” he said. “Karnataka, which plays in the other group, also looks a good side.”

In the opening match, Kerala takes on Andhra.

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