Karnataka regains title

THAT Indian football wallows in mediocrity will be to state the obvious. The 39th edition of the National junior football championship for the Dr. B. C. Roy Trophy, held in Thrissur, was another grim reminder of this truth. The under-19 tournament was touted to showcase the country's best available talent. But from what one saw of the next generation footballers, the future of the game in India does look very bleak indeed.

Perhaps the new format adopted by the All-India Football Federation this year — which allows only the zonal winners to play in the National — has something to do with the dip in standards. The new format made things easier for the host association to conduct the tournament but the quality of the game suffered.

Traditionally strong teams and former champions Manipur, Bengal and Maharashtra missed the bus, having finished second in their respective zonal qualifiers. In hindsight the presence of any one of these teams would have definitely improved the quality of the tournament.

However, the championship was a memorable one for Karnataka, which won the title after a gap of 12 years. Karnataka might not have won many friends with its dour style but the team was industrious and had the will to lift itself against heavy odds.

The team did not have any outstanding player though it had ones with a big heart in Kuttimani, Dharani and Kayan. Their tough resolve saw Karnataka stage a comeback against superior teams.

The lanky Kuttimani strove manfully in the midfield and with clever distribution often presented numerous chances for his colleagues upfront. The Karnataka defence too was rock solid and rarely made a mistake. That Karnataka conceded only one goal in the whole tournament was an ample testimony to how well its defence stood up to the task of blunting the edge of rival strikers. Goalkeeper Shivkumar was a pillar of strength under the bar and effected crucial saves especially in the final against Goa.

Karnataka's fighting spirit was evident in the league match against Goa when it clawed back to snatch a draw against an opponent, which was determined to hold to its lead at any cost. But Karnataka kept up the pressure and managed to breach the defensive wall and score the equaliser in the 71st minute through Dharani.

The fancied Bihar side paid the price for complacency against Karnataka in their encounter. Bihar, which needed just a draw to qualify for the semifinals, made the mistake of abandoning its trademark hard-pressing game and instead played percentage football.

Karnataka, which played positively from the start, was finally rewarded for its hard work when Udayakumar slotted home the match-winner in a goalmouth melee.

Even in the final against Goa, Karnataka had its back to the wall as it struggled to find its footing on the slippery turf. The Goans, who adapted to the conditions better, had the rival defence in check but failed to score. Karnataka weathered the storm and unleashed its own fury in the second half and had the Goans back-pedalling. Finally Karnataka's sustained pressure yielded dividends when Udayakumar nodded in the golden goal in the ninth minute of extra-time. Though Bihar failed to progress into the semifinals, it was one team which looked compact in all aspects of the game. In Vanlal Mowia it had a speedy striker while Parminder Singh was quite brilliant in the midfield.

Holder Punjab's limitations were exposed first by Kerala, which won 3-0 and then by Karnataka in the semifinals. Punjab relied more on the physical strength of its players rather than skill. The tactics worked against Madhya Pradesh and Bihar but went awry against Kerala, which pumped in three second half goals to dent Punjab's pride. Though striker Manjeet Singh looked sharp, the Punjab midfielders were not creative enough and the defenders were often caught on the wrong foot by speedy rival strikers. The only saving grace for Punjab was some good goalkeeping by Simarpreet Singh.

Kerala was burdened with expectations though it had the benefit of playing in a weak group. Individually the players showed flashes of brilliance but as a team, Kerala failed to combine as a unit. It made its exit losing to lowly Madhya Pradesh and Uttrar Pradesh. Against Madhya Pradesh, it was the costly error by goalkeeper E. C. Sarath which put paid to its chances. Against Uttar Pradesh it was sloppy defence which made things easier for U.P. striker Nithin Singh Bisht to score the winning goal. Playing without any pressure against Punjab in its last match, Kerala ran riot and defeated its rival 3-0 to salvage some pride.

Uttar Pradesh exceeded the expectations by reaching the semifinals. It got the better of Kerala and Madhya Pradesh in Group A to qualify for the last four stage, where it gave Goa a run for its money before losing by a golden goal. Amit Kumar Singh, Mohammed Arif and Nithin Singh Bihst were more than capable players and it had a good custodian in Vivek Prakash Gupta. But in the semifinals, Vivek turned out to be the villain when he let in a shot from Phillip Pereria through his legs, which ended U.P.'s dream of making it to the final.

The results:

Group A: Uttar Pradesh bt Kerala 1-0; by Madhya Pradesh 2-0. Punjab bt Madhya Pradesh 1-0, but Uttar Pradesh 1-0, Kerala bt Punjab 3-0; Madhya Pradesh bt Kerala 2-1.

Standings (read as played, won, draw, lost, goals for, goals against, points): Uttar Pradesh: 3-2-0-1-3-1-6; Punjab: 3-2-0-1-2-3-6; Kerala: 3-1-0-2-3-4-3-3; Madhya Pradesh: 3-1-0-2-2-4-3.

Group B: Karnataka bt Bihar 1-0, bt Tripura 1-0, drew Goa 1-1; Goa bt Tripura 1-0, drew Bihar 2-2; Bihar bt Tripura 3-0.

Standings: Karnataka: 3-2-1-0-3-1-7; Goa: 3-1-2-0-4-3-5; Bihar: 3-1-1-1-5-3-4; Triupura: 3-0-03-0-5-0.

Semifinals: Karnataka bt Punjab 2-0; Goa bt Uttar Pradesh 1-0.

Final: Karnataka bt Goa 1-0. — M. R. Praveen Chandran