Kerala's positive approach

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST


KERALA'S victory in the 57th Santosh Trophy was like a kiss of life for India's premier inter-State tournament, turning the question mark against the All India Football Federation's insistence on organising such an event against all odds into an exclamation mark. India's champion State was in great form, netting 16 goals in four matches through flamboyant attacks, generating such excitement in Mumbai that vital Santosh Trophy issues such as the absence of a title sponsor despite guaranteed television coverage were pushed into the background.

Kerala's positive approach to the game right from kick-off and its 16 delightful goals lent a sheen of respectability to AIFF's efforts, at a time when the glamour of the National Football League and the money floating in club football had reduced an inter-State tournament among amateurs such as the Santosh Trophy, into a non-entity.

The federation lends a hand to the Santosh Trophy with a Rs. 20 lakhs grant to the organising unit, out of television rights money received from Doordarshan. Kerala's contribution was worth much more - attracting crowds for matches, creating opportunities for extensive media coverage and giving value for money to everyone associated with the event. "Football is won by scoring more goals than your opponent. I firmly believed in the ability of my boys to do it," said Kerala coach M. Peethambaran.

A simple statement at first glance, but a loaded one taking into account Kerala's astonishing achievements en route to the 57th Santosh Trophy title, the fourth won by the State in 10 final appearances. Abdul Hakim, a 22-year-old international playing his first National in Mumbai, scored thrice against Goa in the final which produced five brilliant goals and many misses, including the decisive golden goal, ending in a 3-2 victory for Peethambaran's boys. "I knew Goa would have two defenders on (Ashif) Saheer, giving us numerical advantage which Hakim exploited," said the coach, delighted that the boys vindicated his supreme faith in their abilities.

Five goals in the final is a highpoint for any football competition, with Kerala's ability to bounce back in extra-time after conceding a first half goal adding to the drama. Coming on the heels of a nail-biting 5-3 victory over Tamil Nadu in the semifinals, Peethambaran knew what he was talking about. "We have the best attacking side in the tournament, so our forwards will continue their work." Hakim responded with a three-goal burst and Ashif Saheer netted twice as Kerala crushed TN's aspirations, moving from 0-1 down to a 5-1 lead, then conceding in two goals (5-3) before time ran out.

Kerala's approach was based on speed and athleticism, fast counter-attacks, slick passing and spectacular finishes. "Teamwork and discipline were important factors in our success," noted the Kerala coach. "There are no stars in this team, each one is treated equally, though by the time we reached the final, the boys had become famous due to their performances." The cohesion was due to the SBT factor, 14 out of 20 playing for State Bank of Travancore under M. Najeeb, a view endorsed by skipper V. Shivakumar.

"The team was chosen on current form after the inter-district tournament. Kerala has enough talent to field four teams as strong as this one," Peethambaran had observed at the start, reflecting the feeling in the team against critics back home who had collectively written off the side without any known players from established sides such as FC Kochin. The defence and goalkeeping were problem areas, but Saheer and his mates more than covered up for it. "Most of the defensive mistakes occurred in the second half because of the 1-45 p.m. start and the heat. Matches in Kerala, even league games, are played under floodlights and so playing in the Mumbai heat caused tiredness and concentration lapses."

Goa was edged out at the finish only by Hakim's individual brilliance. The most compact and consistent side of the 57th Santosh Trophy and a three-time former National champion, Goa was shattered by the abrupt 'golden goal' end, but can take pride in its overall performance. The coach Armando Colaso succeeded in moulding the team into a fighting unit and the absence of established seniors like Francis Silveira, Alvito D'Cunha, Aqueel Ansari, Robert Fernandes and Franky Barretto was not felt till the final game.

Goa, seeded directly into the quarterfinal league, did not show any weak links, the whole team functioning like a joint defensive or attacking unit, marshalled by skipper Mahesh Gawli and Noel Wilson respectively. Both these former Tata Football Academy graduates displayed total confidence and commitment, inspiring youngsters in the team to raise the level of their game. The Goan defence of Gawli, Seby Coelho, Samir Naik and Rajesh Meetei, supported by Kalyan Chaubey in the goal, remained unbeaten till the final before Hakim's three-goal blitz spoilt their reputation. Wilson was the hub of most moves, linking up with the tireless Roque Barretto, Ratan Singh and Jose Colaso to form a classy midfield.

Abhay Kumar was excellent in the forwardline, moving through defences on the strength of his pace and body control, scoring one goal in the final off a setpiece corner kick only to blot his record with two goalmouth misses which, in the final analysis, proved costly. Levy Coelho was a livewire up front, small-made but deadly and skilful with the ball. Goa peaked in the semfinals against Railways but had to wait for the tie-breaker before winning 4-2. Even in the final, Kerala was on the ropes for the entire second half as the Goans forced the pace, but close misses cost them the title. Jose Colaso beat his marker a delicate tap as the ball lobbed onto the other foot, but the volley flew close to the post. Ratan Singh's leaping volley went screaming over the crossbar.

Railways and Tamil Nadu were the two other semifinalists, both sides coming through the preliminary phase and the quarterfinal league. The former depended on preparation and planning to make their mark while the latter on guts, Sabir Pasha's brilliance and a lot of luck. Coached by Irenio Vaz and Shankar Maitra, the Railways squad for the Santosh Trophy was shortlisted after a 15-day camp at Ajni (Nagpur), the original venue for the Nationals before the last minute switch to Mumbai. The focus on football by the Railway management was amply rewarded as the coaches used the first phase to try out all players, then allocated individual responsibilities for each one in the quarterfinal league.

Railways qualified as the Group C topper, ahead of holder Maharashtra and Services. Striker Manjinder Singh's opportunism and attacking midfielder Kasif Jamal's ball skills stood out, but equally important roles were played by defensive midfielder Surjeet Tigga, strikers Masood Ansari, Asif Jamal and Adil Ansari, international goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee and the hardworking defence. The manner in which the whole side raised the level of its game against Maharashtra, slowing down the pace to a trot and using even intimidatory tactics to throw the star-studded rivals off rhythm was admirable.

Tamil Nadu had the inimitable Sabir Pasha and luck on its side, a combination of the two carrying the side through the cluster stage (beating Gujarat in a draw of lots) before the ex-international made his presence felt against Bengal in the quarterfinal league and against Kerala in the semifinal. He destroyed Bengal with one deft touch of his favourite left foot, making a pass between two defenders for teammate P. Muthu to do the rest.

Pasha's best came against Kerala, beating a confused defence with two goals to reduce a 1-5 deficit to 3-5, then seeing another attempt bounce off the crossbar before being cleared on the goalline. He was marked in every game, but he uncannily created space for himself and then unleashed his left-footed skills to make a mockery of man-to-man and zonal marking. The amazing aspect of this virtuoso performance by Tamil Nadu's main hope was that he was recovering from an injured right knee, forcing him to seek medical advice on whether to play, let alone create and score goals.

Tamil Nadu's over-dependence on the left-footed maestro proved to be a handicap in the initial phase, but others such as M. Islam, Suresh Kumar, K. Kulothungan and Muthu gained in confidence in Pasha's company to lift the team's level as a whole. Manipur was the other surprise packet with goalkeepers Noren Singh and Jiten Singh showing reflexes and anticipation of the highest calibre to draw repeated applause from the crowd.

The biggest disappointment was caused by holder Maharashtra and former champion Bengal. Maharashtra coached by Iranian Jamshed Nassiri instead of last year's incumbent Harish Rao or proven Bimal Ghosh, played like a team of reluctant stars. The presence of current India players such as skipper Khalid Jamil, Virender Singh, Jules Alberto, Mohd Najeeb, S.Venkatesh and youth international Tomba Singh looked like giving the coach an embarrassment of riches, but the team's inability to seize the moment in a crucial quarterfinal league game against Railways seemed surprising, considering the bench strength at Nassiri's command, among whom only Narendra Meetei capitalised on an opportunity to hit big-time.

Bengal earned the dubious distinction of getting eliminated from the Santosh Trophy without scoring a single goal in two quarterfinal league games, maybe the first time in the State's history. Coaches Shabbir Ali and Prashanta Banerjee resorted to substitutions after the regulars seemed to be going through their motions, creating chances but not able to put the ball in. It is difficult to put a finger on Bengal's disappointing show, except mention the after-effects of a controversy over East Bengal and Mohun Bagan's refusal to release players for the Nationals. Kerala, Goa and even Railways made a virtue out of necessity but sadly Bengal went the other way.

Coming to logistical and organisational matters, the advancing of dates from the third week of November to the first week, presumably to avoid a clash with the National Games in Punjab, affected the tournament in many ways. Bhaichung Bhutia's State team Sikkim opted out, followed by another north-east team Meghalaya. The holiday season due to Diwali created nightmares for State associations getting rail bookings to Mumbai, forcing teams to travel for days without confirmed berths for all players. Assam and Manipur, for example, survived a four-day rail journey from Guwahati.

The 57th Nationals saw all 26 participating teams given free lodging, the expenses borne by the Western India Football Association. The organisers also insured every player for Rs. 1 lakh each, 18 per team, besides medical insurance of Rs. 25,000 per player, all insurance matters handled by New India Assurance. Kerala received a cash prize of Rs. 3,00,000 for winning the title, runner-up Goa gained Rs. 1,50,000; semifinalists Railways and Tamil Nadu got Rs. 25,000 each. The tournament was held over three stages. The toppers from the eight clusters in the preliminary phase joined last year's champion Maharashtra, runner-up Kerala, Goa and Bengal in the quarterfinal league where the four group leaders qualified for the knock-out semifinal stage.

Twenty-two State sides took part in the preliminary phase held at two venues - Cooperage and University stadium.

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