Goa in the right direction

Goa (above with the Manindra Dutta Ray trophy) maintained an all-win record to wrest the supremacy from traditional powerhouse Bengal-PICS. RITU RAJ KONWAR Goa (above with the Manindra Dutta Ray trophy) maintained an all-win record to wrest the supremacy from traditional powerhouse Bengal

The champion side benefited from the support from professional clubs like Sporting Clube, Salgaocar SC, Dempo SC and Churchill Brothers, who sent their talented young recruits to represent the state. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

As Indian football is looking for the right method to groom talent in order to realise its dream of qualifying for the World Cup in 2014, Goa appears to be heading in the right direction. The tiny western Indian state gave a proof of this when its youth team lifted the glittering Manindra Dutta Ray Trophy in the National Under-21 Championship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Guwahati recently.

Goa comes as a refreshing breakaway from the general indifference in the country to youth development, which is the focus of the global initiative to bring Indian football out of its slumber. When the FIFA (International Football Federation) president Joseph `Sepp' Blatter called India a "sleeping giant'', he was hinting at the nation's shortcomings in the development of football at the grass-root level. He stressed on the need to involve the society or the community in the development of the game in India.

In this regard, Goa seems to be the only state going in the right direction. Ask Savio Barreto, the coach-cum-manager of Goa, about this, and he promptly points out to the success of its multi-tier selection system that begins at the village level.

"We have put in place the Professional League system a long time back. It has ensured that each team participating in the tournament appointed at least two players from the youth or the under-19 level,'' Barreto said.

So, it is not surprising that the likes of Milagres Gonzalves, Gabriel Fernandez, Kevin Lobo, Lavino Fernandez and Fulganco Cardozo played their hearts out in ensuring Goa's victory in the tournament. These players are aware that it would not be long before they find a place in one of the top clubs in the state, which already has four teams playing in the elite stage of the National Football League.

Milagres Gonsalves celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Bengal in the semifinals. The Goan emerged the top scorer in the tournament.-

Gonzalves emerged the highest scorer, netting a goal in each of the five matches his team won on way to the title. Goa maintained an all-win record to wrest the supremacy from traditional powerhouse Bengal.

Bengal, winner of six Under-21 crowns and champion in the last two editions in 2005 and 2006, had its sights on a third successive title. But Goa put paid to Bengal's aspirations with a 2-0 victory in the semifinals. In the final, Goa, despite conceding an early goal, vanquished Punjab 2-1 and when the referee Irfanulla Khan blew the final whistle, the Goa players erupted into wild celebrations as they flung themselves on to the slushy turf and slid all the way to the fence barricading the galleries.

Showers midway through the final proved advantageous to the Goa players who revelled in the heavy underfoot conditions, thereby breaking the resistance of Punjab whose players were not accustomed to playing on wet surfaces.

The secretary of the Goan Football Association, Savio Messias, who had flown in for the final, too joined his boys in the celebration. His presence clearly underlined the importance that the GFA attaches to age-group events. In sharp contrast was the attitude of the tournament's patron, the All India Football Federation. It gave the championship a short shrift. Tournaments like these generally have observers and selectors from the national body, but in Guwahati none were visible.

The teams that made it to the decisive stages of the tournament benefited from the presence of some talented players. Punjab rode on the all-round ability of its playmaker Baljit Sahni. The Northern powerhouse comprised players solely from the JCT Football Academy, of which Sahni was the brightest star.

Sahni showed a great sense of anticipation and good ball-playing skills. In addition was his ability to finish from awkward angles. He came to the rescue of Punjab whenever the team was in crisis. In a crucial group match against Mizoram, Sahni scored twice to help Punjab force a 2-2 draw and ensure a place in the semifinals.

Punjab's Baljit Sahni (left) in a challenge with Services' Robert L. Zuala. Sahni was the star of his team.-

In the semifinal against host Assam, the strapping youngster from Phagwara scored the equaliser to stretch the match to extra time, where substitute Satwant Singh slotted the winner in the 101st minute.

Assam, in search of the elusive title, packed its team with imports from Manipur and Mizoram. The last time Assam reached the final of the Under-21 tournament was in 1994, but it was denied the crown by host Manipur. This time, it was the turn of four Manipur players to lend strength to the Assam team. The diminutive Priyo Kumar Singh and his stocky midfield colleague L. Dewan Singh carried Assam's hopes as did the two Mizoram players, captain Zaidinmaiwa Hmar — he was also India skipper in the Asian Youth Championship last year — and striker F. Lalmuanpuia.

Playing alongside were local talents such as Mintu Boro and Jayanta Basumatary and they helped the host put up a strong display in the group stage. Assam held Bengal 1-1 and thrashed former champion Kerala 5-0. Though it lost to a dogged Punjab in the semifinals, Assam's contribution was crucial as it relegated Bengal to the second spot in the group standings, which pitted the latter against Goa in the round of four. This, in a way, ensured that the tournament gained a new champion after a gap of two seasons.

Where Goa succeeded, Bengal failed. The champion side had relatively good support from the professional clubs like Sporting Clube, Salgaocar SC, Dempo SC and Churchill Brothers, who lent their talented young recruits to represent the state. The Goan enterprise rested mostly on the ability of its five players — Salgaocar striker Gonzalves, Sporting Clube's striker Gabriel Fernandez and midfielder Kevin Lobo, Churchill Brothers's midfielder Lavino Fernandez and Vasco SC's goalkeeper Laxmikanth Kattimani — who impressed with both skill and temperament.

On the other hand, Bengal had barely a few players from its premier clubs. As a result, Ayan Choudhury (Mohun Bagan) and Ashim Das (Chirag United SC) had to shoulder much of Bengal's workload.

Choudhury, though not very consistent, showed that he still had the skill to score goals — he netted four, including a hat-trick.

Bengal's centre-half Sovan Chakraborty too did his bit but the defending champion's prospect was marred in the absence of a good goalkeeper as both Arup Debnath (East Bengal) and Arnab Das Sarma (George Telegraph) floundered under the bar, conceding soft goals that eventually saw Bengal's exit.

Former champion Kerala failed miserably with a rookie side. The South Zone champion was thrashed by both Assam and Bengal and finished third in the group table. Kerala's coach Rajeev P. K. lamented that none of the clubs from the state released its players. This forced the selectors to pick players from different colleges and they hardly had any experience of playing competitive soccer.

True, the tournament succeeded in showcasing some new talents, but it also exposed the deficiency in India's youth development structure and this needs to be addressed immediately.

The results

Final: Goa 2 (Milagres Gonzalves 35 - penalty, Gabriel Fernandez 85) bt Punjab 1 (Lalhalmtharamama 7).

Semifinals: Punjab 2 (Baljit Singh Sahni 57, Satwant Singh 101) bt Assam 1 (Mintu Boro 30) in extra-time.

Goa 2 (Kevin Lobo 77, Milagres Gonsalves 90+1) bt Bengal 0.