A treat to watch

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

THE 58th National championship for football supremacy was novel on at least two counts: it saw a new champion in Manipur and established a fresh address of excellence in the annals of the popular sport. Hosting the championship for the first time, Manipur lifted the prestigious trophy displacing the traditional powerhouse and the defending champion Kerala.

The victorious Manipur team.-S. PATRONOBISH

Football in the country thus saw the north-eastern State confirm its status as the new patron, opening up possibilities for the sport to flourish in the region that has so long figured as a minion in the long history of the tournament. The final outcome was more significant as Manipur - the first State to earn the honour from North-East - helped the region join the national mainstream through sporting brilliance. And with consumer durables giant LG India coming up as the title sponsor, the meet received the requisite financial thrust making it 20 days of absorbing contest (October 17 to the final on November 5) at the picturesque setting of the Main Stadium, Khuman Lampak Sports Complex.

In the end, the title justified the rich sporting tradition of the State, which has football topping the popularity chart. Having already established a monopoly in women's football over the years, the accomplishment by the men helped Manipur complete its supremacy in the sport in the country. A pioneering resolution of the AIFF, that introduced the 'nativity' rule, appeared all the more responsible for helping Manipur to its moment of glory. The new law empowered the participating States to recall their native players for the tournament, and this helped the host as it gleaned the best from across the country to confirm its status on top of the National hierarchy.

Encouraged by Manipur's success, the AIFF president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who was present during the final, announced the continuance of the 'nativity' theory for the next edition - the venue for which is yet to be decided. The president said the new 'policy' adopted by the national governing body helped the States to show their real strength and hence it was necessary to preserve the new law.

Manipur's ascendancy to the throne was not without controversy. The host contentiously availed of two chances in the semifinals before gaining its place in the final. A grumbling Goa - the three-time champion favoured against the host in the semifinals - had to be content with the fair play award for agreeing to a rematch after the original contest was abandoned owing to crowd trouble. A 55th minute goal by Covan Lawrence put Goa ahead in the first match but the partisan crowd - which took upon itself the task of overruling the referee S. M. Balu's decision and judging the goal off-side - wrecked havoc to force the abandonment. The administrators - both from the national body (All India Football Federation) and the local organiser (All Manipur Football Association) - under the pressure of completing the tournament, ordered a replay the next day, giving the host a fresh lease of life. Apparently, unable to agree to the decision, Goa put up a half-hearted display and failed to avail of the advantage against a team, which had been reduced to 10 men as early as in the 19th minute. The shoot-outs finally helped Manipur find the route to the final.

The replay theory appeared to work against the world governing body FIFA's efforts to be tough against violence orchestrated by the home crowd. The FIFA legislation - applied to big club contests, which are more prone to such incidents, generally played in the 'home and away' format, tends to be very severe with the home team if a match is abandoned owing to crowd trouble. But with no such clear lines governing an inter-State meet, the 'rematch' following the abandoned semifinal appeared to be a convenient escape from the impending trouble if the home team was penalised. The think-tanks thought it pertinent not to be "too harsh" on any one and sought to get along with the idea of somehow completing the show. The AIFF president rounded it off saying that everything was done in "consonance with the tournament laws". He never specified any of them.

The final belonged to Manipur and its coach Shanti Singh. The team put behind all the controversies and poor form and ravaged Kerala in a super show of strength and tactical finesse. Tomba Singh became the hero with a single strike in the 94th minute that turned out to be the golden goal and earned the host a place in the record books. As the regulation time failed to break the 1-1 deadlock, the match went into extra-time and Tomba Singh came up with the match-winner in the fourth minute itself. Coach Shanti Singh, bestowed with the responsibility of realising the dream of the State's millions, was able to inspire his boys to accomplish the feat. Singh, having helped the State women's team to repeated triumphs in the Nationals, thus added a new credential to his long coaching career.

Both fortune and form seemed to desert the defending champion Kerala in the crucial match. The powerhouse from the South fell at the last hurdle, managing just a minimum of what it was supposed to perform. The expectations were high as Kerala made it to the final with a convincing 3-2 win against a resolute Services in the first semifinal. The final encounter thus marked a contrast as Manipur, a relative upstart, triumphed against the tradition that Kerala, as the four-times champion, sought to represent. Working on a fine rhythm brought about by a balance in all the departments, the host was right at it pushing the visitor to the defensive immediately after the kick-off. The host took the lead early in the seventh minute, from a throw-in. The magic throw of Uttamkumar Singh came to Manipur's help yet again - the same player had used his long arm to a good effect against Tamil Nadu in a crucial quarterfinal encounter - as the defender sent the ball deep into the Kerala box and Tiken Singh headed the ball home. The early goal subdued Kerala greatly as the defending champion seemed to find itself in a crisis. Kerala showed starting problems all through the tournament, but looked to settle down by the second quarter of the game and won with considerable ease. The resolve seemed to desert the team in the final as its famed forwardline - comprising captain Asif Saheer, Sylvester Ignatious and Abdul Hakkim - and the midfield appeared to be cramped, facing a spirited host. Unable to spread the game out to the flanks and confronting a resolute Manipur defence marshalled by captain Ratan Singh, Kerala choked under pressure.

Kerala enjoyed some moments of reprieve, as substitute Abdul Naushad scored the equaliser with three minutes to the final whistle. The joy, however, was shortlived as Tomba Singh fetched the golden goal for the host with just four minutes into the extra-time. In the final analysis, Kerala greatly missed the services of its express striker T. Usman. The nippy forward, coming as a second session substitute, helped his team win against big opponents such as Services and Bengal in the quarterfinal league stage.

Apart from the glittering trophy donated in the name of the late Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhury, the Maharaja of Santosh, Manipur received the winner's purse of Rs. 3,00,000. Runner-up Kerala took the Kamala Gupta Trophy and an amount of Rs. 1,50,000. Manipur also monopolised the individual awards. The list began with the 'LG most-valuable-player-of-the-tournament' award which was bagged by midfield work-horse James Singh while Tomba Singh was adjudged the most valuable player of the match. Noren Singh, who saved the team in the tie-breaker against Goa, was named the best goalkeeper of the tournament while Bijen Singh was the highest scorer with a tally of nine goals to his credit.

In the quarterfinal stage Bengal's exit was the biggest upset of the tournament. Bengal could, at best, be mediocre and struggled to beat modest group 'A' league opponent Assam 2-1 in the opening match before succumbing to Kerala 2-3. In its bid to regain the title it had lost three years ago, Bengal's start in the crucial league phase did not reflect the confidence and flair that would sustain its title hopes. The team representing the traditional superpower of the sport seemed to be impaired on too many aspects and that was amply reflected in the tardy performance, belying its real status. Coach Subrato Bhattacharya - the famed international - blamed the apathy of the big city clubs, which did not release the best players, and the Indian Football Association for not being able to force the clubs to allow Bengal to field its best team. One major reason for the team's debacle was striker Dipendu Biswas' underperformance. Thought to be the mainstay of the team, he failed to deliver during the quarterfinals and hit a goal drought, compounding the team's plight. Similar was the state of Maharashtra, which too, had to make do with a rag-tag combination, as the clubs did not release a few of the better players. Tamil Nadu, too having a very bright combination with the likes of K. Kulothungan and P. Muthu spearheading the attack had all the prospects of making its second successive entry to the semifinals, but controversy marred by poor refereeing in the last quarterfinal encounter against the host put paid to its hopes. A nine-man Tamil Nadu, which saw some harsh refereeing decimating its strength, held Manipur 2-2 but the latter made it because of a better goal difference.

Thirtytwo teams from all over the country were supposed to participate, but three States pulled out leaving only 29 in the fray.

The results:

Final: Manipur 2 (Tiken Singh 6, Tomba Singh 94 (golden goal)) bt Kerala 1 (Abdul Naushad 87).

Semifinals: A. Kerala 3 (Asif Saheer 12, 22, K. Ajayan 78) bt Services 2 (Johny F. Gangmei 9, Pritam Bahadur 69). B. Manipur 4(0) bt Goa 3(0) (via tiebreaker).

Quarterfinal league stage: Group A: Kerala 2-2-0-0-6-3-6; Bengal 2-1-0-1-4-4-3; Assam 2-0-0-2-2-5-0. (Read as under: played, won, drawn, lost, goals in favour, goals against and points).

Match results: A. Bengal 2 (Dipendu Biswas 6th minute (penalty), Amar Pyne 38) bt Assam 1 (Sanjiva Rongpi 65). B. Kerala 3 (S. Ignatious 31, 58, Usman T. 87) bt Bengal 2 (Chandan Das 20, Sandip Das 79). C. Kerala 3 (K. Bineesh 71, S. Ignatious 77, Abdul Noushad 90) bt Assam 1 (S. Rongpi 37).

Group B: Services 2-1-1-0-3-1-4; Maharashtra 2-1-1-0-2-1-4; Railways 2-0-0-2-0-3-0.

Match results: A. Maharashtra 1 (Altafuddin Ahmed 2) drew against Services 1 (Pradip Debnath 48). B. Maharashtra 1 (Naushad Moosa 37) bt Railways 0. C. Services 2 (Pritam Bahadur 13, 58) bt Railways 0.

Group C: Goa 2-2-0-0-4-2-6; Karnataka 2-1-0-1-3-2-3; Punjab 2-0-0-2-1-4-0.

Match results: A. Karnataka 2 (Mahendra Mani 22, Sunil S. 30) bt Punjab 0. B. Goa 2 (Covan Lawrence 42, Alvito D'Cunha 44) bt Punjab 1 (Sher Singh 17). C. Goa 2 (Jules Alberto 3, Sukhdev Arvade 38) bt Karnataka 1 (S. Paramesh 56).

Group D: Manipur 2-1-1-0-6-3-4; Tamil Nadu 2-1-1-0-4-3-4; Orissa 2-0-0-2-2-6-0.

Match results: A. Manipur 4 (Bijen Singh 9, 82, Tiken Singh 38, Tomba Singh 60) bt Orissa 1 (Premchand Singh). B. Tamil Nadu 2 (P. Muthu 24, 28 (Penalty)) bt Orissa 1 (Saroj Kanta Pattnaik 19). C. Manipur 2 (Uttam Singh 24, Tiken Singh 69) drew with Tamil Nadu 2 (Kalia Kulothungan 6, A. Kumaravel 90+).

Fairplay trophy: Goa. Most valuable player of the tournament: L. James Singh (Manipur). Best goalkeeper: Noren Singh (Manipur). Highest goalscorer of the tournament: Bijen Singh (Manipur) - 9 goals.

IN the absence of established stars such as Bhaichung Bhutia, I. M. Vijayan and Joe Paul Ancheri, new talent emerged in the 58th edition of the National football championship. While Manipur reigned supreme, L. James Singh definitely emerged as one of the architects who played a key role in the State's triumph. His consistency was the highlight of his performance in the annual showpiece for National supremacy.

Flamboyance has never been part of this 23-year-old Tata Football Academy graduate who has always been impressive with his quiet resolve and quick reflexes. In this meet, he proved his class whenever he appeared in his favoured position as a right-half for his team. James displayed the right traits of an attacking mideo combining speed with dribbling abilities and it was a treat to watch the player in action. The award of the LG 'Most Valuable Player' of the tournament came as a belated tribute to his abilities as a quality midfielder. Capping a magnificent season for the Kolkata giant, Mohun Bagan, James Singh played a key role in seeing his club to its third National Football League title. But he was ignored during the selection for the National teams for the LG Cup - which India won a few months ago - and the Busan Asian Games.

Putting aside the frustration of missing two opportunities of playing for the country, James was right into the game to help his State to its maiden Santosh Trophy title. Having played at least three seasons with Mohun Bagan as a valued regular, he joined the exodus that saw quite a few of the Bagan stalwarts opting for inter-State transfers.

He found favour with the Mumbai giant, Mahindra United, and has already readied himself to help his new club in its quest to win its first National Football League title.