The sizeable chunk of the Malayali diaspora in Saudi Arabia didn’t turn up in large numbers at the stadium due to the absence of Kerala from the Santosh Trophy knock-out, feels AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey.
Taken to foreign shores for the first time in its eight-decade-long history, the National Football Championship is being played at the King Fahad International Stadium where superstar footballers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were in action in an exhibition match in January.
However, the semifinal between Nagaland and Punjab hardly attracted any crowd at the 60,000-seater stadium.
“I was hoping Kerala or Bengal qualify for the semifinals. If they had qualified, maybe a lot of people from Kerala would have come to watch the matches. If these football fans who lived in Saudi Arabia turned up, it would have helped in generating revenue. It would be good both for the Saudi federation and for India also,” Chaubey said.
“That is the reason the stadium (King Fahd International Stadium with above 60,000 capacity) was allocated. But it did not happen in the way we wanted it to, because Kerala has not qualified.” Kerala, the last edition’s champions, had finished third in Group A in the second round of the tournament held in Bhubaneswar, thereby missing out on the semifinals.
Chaubey said that the matches will also feature Video Assistant Referee (VAR), which would make Santosh Trophy the first ‘domestic’ event to use the technology first introduced globally in 2018.
But the technology was not used during the semifinals on Wednesday.
In the first semi-finals, Meghalaya stunned former champions Punjab 2-1 to qualify for their maiden final. Services play against Karnataka in the second semifinals.
Talking about the rationale for bringing the Santosh Trophy to Saudi Arabia, he said, “25 lakh Indians reside in Saudi Arabia and there are another 12 lakh Indians in nearby Bahrain and Qatar.
“During the 2022 World Cup in Doha also, Indians formed the second largest among spectators. This is the strength that we can capitalise on,” said Chaubey, narrating a story of how some Indians residing in Doha came to meet him at his hotel when he visited the Qatari capital after taking charge as AIFF chief last year.
“This is part of the development of Indian football. This is giving players more exposure, a better environment, better facilities, playing ground. Only the opponents are not new, all others are new,” he said.
Asked if it will continue in future also, Chaubey said, “We would like to continue this, maybe in this country if all goes well. But it comes with budgetary provisions.
“Until this tournament is over, I am not in a position to say much. But as of today, I want to have this (part of Santosh Trophy playing on foreign shores) to be an annual affair.”
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