In dire straits

The victorious Services team.-PICS.: H. VIBHU

With the country’s premier players (I-League stars) barred from the Santosh Trophy, the national championship has turned out to be a second-string affair. Stan Rayan takes stock.

Roaring, whistling and clapping, they cheered the home team. A crowd of nearly 35,000 turned out for the final of the 67th Santosh Trophy between Kerala and Services in Kochi the other day.

The general secretary of the AIFF (All India Football Federation), Kushal Das, was floored by the big crowd. Recent editions of the national championship have not seen such a huge response from spectators, he said.

A little later, after the extra-time minutes hurried away and Kerala defender V. V. Surjith hit the crosspiece in the sudden-death to give defending champion Services the Santosh Trophy with a 4-3 verdict, the stadium suddenly went silent.

It was hard for the crowd to digest that despite the home goalkeeper Jean Christian’s stunning saves in the regulation period and in the tie-breaker — he pushed away the first two Services attempts in the shootout — Kerala ended up on the losing side.

More than the roar and the cheer of the final, that deathly silence offered a true picture of the Santosh Trophy this time.

The crowd turnout was good only for the final and decent for other matches which featured the home team. Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was virtually empty for the rest of the championship, including the thrilling semifinal between a strong Punjab and Services, and the picture was not much different in Kollam where two quarterfinal groups were conducted apart from other preliminary league matches.

With the country’s premier players (I-League stars) barred from the Santosh Trophy, the national championship has turned out to be a second-string affair. And with many of the second division I-League teams releasing its players for state duty only reluctantly, it fell even further on the popularity charts.

Mumbai’s Dodsal FC, which has now changed its name to Mumbai Tigers, released former internationals Mohammed Rafi and N. P. Pradeep to play for Maharashtra only after the Western India Football Association threatened to suspend it from all state tournaments while Vasco offered its striker to Goa after much pressure from the Goa Football Association.

“You should have good players playing in the Santosh Trophy,” said I. M. Vijayan. “If we have top I-League players here, it will be colourful. The games will be good and the crowds will come.”

Kerala goalkeeper Jean Christian came up with some crucial saves in the final.-

Strangely, while the Santosh Trophy was being played to an empty Nehru Stadium, a sevens football tournament, which did not have the official sanction of the Kerala Football Association, was played to packed stands at Perumbavur, some 30 kms from Kochi.

“In sevens, the crowd is much closer to the action and the game is like a tug-of-war, with a lot of action within a short period and a short space,” said another former international C. V. Pappachan. “There is a lot of hype surrounding sevens. There are posters and regular announcements. We need that sort of hype for our players (playing the Santosh Trophy), they have to be written about frequently, shown frequently. I came to know about Kerala striker Kannan only after reading that he looked like Socrates. Nobody knew about him till then.”

Dipendu Biswas, the former Indian striker from Bengal, felt the AIFF should give the Santosh Trophy its due.

“The AIFF should see that it is given a prominent window in the calendar so that our best players play in it. If not all, at least every state’s five best players must be allowed to play in it,” said the veteran. For sure, this old tournament deserves a better deal.