A significant victory

KERALA'S fifth win in the Santosh Trophy National football championship may not compare with the impressive 29 times that Bengal has won it, but for the sheer pride of annexing the National champion tag, this southern State must rank at the top.

KERALA'S fifth win in the Santosh Trophy National football championship may not compare with the impressive 29 times that Bengal has won it, but for the sheer pride of annexing the National champion tag, this southern State must rank at the top. This is significant in the current scenario where players are inclined to play more for their clubs than their States. Maybe the nativity rule, under which a State can utilise its players serving in clubs in various parts of the country, had helped Manipur, but Kerala was never dependent on it and yet could show the vibrancy that matched the final result. The State's display was testimony to the depth of reserve talent and the immense interest for the sport. Nothing mirrors this more than the fact that Kerala has been in the final in all the last four years and has won the title twice.

Undoubtedly, Kerala has a rich following for football and scenes of overflowing crowds at matches are not rare, particularly in places such as Kochi, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Kannur. Players of the past often talk with fondness of the annual `Kerala circuit' while narrating about the kind of tournaments they regularly played in, in the various parts of the State and for which there used to be an enthusiastic following. Much of that has changed with the times, with most of the tournaments becoming a part of history. This is not because the craze for the game has dipped. Maybe the love for football is not as intense as say in a Latin American country, but football thrives in Kerala not only in stadia, but also in schools and colleges, even freshly harvested paddy fields and backyards. The State is one of the nerve-centres for the game in the country.

How much of this truth is recognised is the question. Even within the State experts have often wondered why for all the craze and following that football raises, particularly in the northern parts, there has never been an adequate number of teams to show at the National level. In fact, in the National league, currently the index of a State's standing in the sport, Kerala's presence has not been dominant (just one club this season and no representation last season). Goa, even though it has a lesser number of National championship wins, and Bengal corner all the attention. If, despite such shortcomings, the standards are still high in Kerala then compliments must go to the young hearts who have kept themselves inspired by the deeds of stars such as I. M. Vijayan or Jo Paul Anchery or earlier to that, Sathyan and Pappachan.

The fact remains that no concerted effort has been made to harness the talent reserve and Kerala football continues to depend on the occasional flutter at the National championships for its image. It is a sad chapter of Indian football that even the Federation's development plans have not quite entailed a searching enquiry into the football-rich pockets in Kerala. National recognition has often been only for players of the major clubs who participate in the National league, or so it seems and not for the others. This is the malady. If only an effort was made to give a coach such as Stephen Constantine, for instance, the freedom to pick and choose from the natural talent that he would find in say Kerala or Manipur or some such untouched areas, it would do a world of good for Indian football.

But first the Kerala Football Association has the task of putting the sport on a firmer footing in the State. Surely its role should go beyond hosting major events. The need of the hour is not just talent spotting and nurturing it, but also reviving at least a few of the major tourneys so that there is encouragement for teams to get support by way of sponsors. There is a lesson to learn for Kerala from the success of the regular and professional leagues in Goa. If there is one thing that the Goa Football Association has realised it is ensuring that the most popular sport never loses its lustre. To that extent football in the State at various age group levels has been served well.

Talk of age-level competition and Constantine's suggestion that the National championship should be made an Under-23 event would have merited attention had they not been tried earlier. The AIFF experimented for four seasons and realised that not only did the popularity of the game dip, but also takers were few for conducting the National event. The irony is that even today when the championship is back to its earlier standing, it still remains an unattractive proposition for most organisers. Gone are the days when a tournament needed to look to the gates to be a success. These are sponsorship times and it has not helped matters that the Santosh Trophy has a rich history behind it. Unless there is financial backing, nobody is interested. Nor does the lack of a monetary incentive amuse modern day footballers. It is a difficult situation that the AIFF faces when it comes to finding a bidder for the National every year.

For all this, it must be said that New Delhi has done a fine job in hosting the National despite being given the task late after Kerala backed out of its commitment. More than anything, the crowd support in the final stages, climaxing with a huge gathering for the final, was a throwback to the earlier times. In addition was the emergence of a popular winner.