Manipur rules

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

The triumphant Manipur team.-Pic. K. GAJENDRAN

It is a different matter that the change of venue did not bring a change of order in the role of honour. It was Manipur again as the champion State just as it was Bengal again as the next best, a story that has been repeating itself barring the exception last year when Orissa had finished runner-up. Manipur completed its ninth win in the National and through the performance this year this north-eastern State confirmed that it is the cradle for women's football talent. Particularly so after the special lustre this year to its triumph because it had fielded a side which was virtually its second string. The reason was the AFC championship originally planned in China in March but postponed in the wake of the SARS outbreak and rescheduled in Bangkok around the same time as the Chennai National.

With 11 players of Manipur in the Indian squad, certain quarters felt that this could just be the year for Bengal, which had to be without only three of its regular players. Reaching the final was the first indication that the power blocs in the sport had not changed notwithstanding some enterprising shows by teams such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana and Bihar. Then the final proved that Manipur still had the resilience and strength to keep its reputation intact. Not even the exit of 14-year-old Bala Devi, who was emerging as the star of the championship, through two yellow card bookings unsettled the north-east visitor.

Bengal Sapna Guria (right) is all set to net the match-winner, as Kerala's Sheeba watches helplessly, in the semifinals.-Pics. K. GAJENDRAN

WOMEN'S football has officially come to the south. The 11th edition of the senior National championship held in Chennai happened to be the first occasion when the major women's event was held in the South Zone. Except for Punjab in the north, the National used to be switched around in East Zone itself; perhaps the AIFF in its own wisdom deciding that since States of that region dominate, the competition could also be held there. It is too early to say whether this shift to a new zone is a consciously considered decision or per chance, but clearly fans in Chennai showed their recognition with an encouraging gathering at the Nehru stadium. As a wag put it, "even the national league matches had failed to get this response."

A slow start (beating Karnataka), but winding up the quarterfinal league on a convincing note (beating Punjab), set the tone for Manipur. Bala Devi then surfaced in the semi-final as Manipur put down Bihar's pretensions. But the poor girl, all innocence for her age, paid the price for inexperience. Attending to an injury, which required her to step out of the rectan<147,1,7>gle, she trotted in, not caring to get the approval of the referee first. Why, even the assistant referee failed to catch her move. As it happened Bala violated a rule and referee Bhaskar Nanda of Orissa sorted her out to book, the implication of which was instantly seen from the way coach Ekendra Singh wrung his fingers in disgust. That happened to be Bala's second yellow card booking and the tears in her eyes conveyed the agony she suffered on being told that she would not be allowed to play the final.

Bala's exit was expected to steady Bengal's resolve further. However, her replacement, Sakhitombi Devi, proved the trump card for Ekendra Singh. The two goals that Manipur scored had her touch. One, to assist Manitombi Devi in scoring, that stung Bengal into inaction for a while, and the other for her own goal that was virtually the signal for the Manipur bench to get ready for celebrations. Indeed, by bringing out the banner, `Manipur rules', the champion State's preparations need to be lauded. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. Manipur proved the point to the hilt.

Lokeshori Devi of Manipur (left) finds the target past Bihar's goalkeeper Samira Topno in the first semifinals.-Pics. K. GAJENDRAN

Sadly for Bengal, which had the consolation of seeing its gifted midfielder Alpana Seal being adjudged the `Best Player of the Championship' for the special award given by the Cosco company, all its methodical ef<147,2,1>forts failed to click. The reason was just speed. Manipuris can be quick in their movement and in ball possession. This was the area, which formed the basic drawback in most teams. Bengal, in fact, was better than the rest. That explained why Manipur's win-margin was restricted. Much credit for this should also go to the hardworking and long-limbed Epakshi Biswas. Had Rinku Ghosh been as effective upfront, Bengal could still have made a match of the final.

As it happens in every championship, pluck, luck and skills combine to give it the variety. Initially it was the rain of goals that held attention and the reason for this was the presence of under-prepared teams such as Jammu & Kashmir, Chandigarh and Rajasthan. Karnataka's passage into the quarterfinal at the expense of a competent Tripura came because of Kashmir's inadequacy in letting in as many as 18 goals (the highest win margin in the championship). For Kerala it was luck that saw it through after `good' neighbours Punjab and Haryana went wrong on the `goals' required for both to progress together. A two-goal margin was the requirement and things were going well before 16-year-old Sharanjit Kaur, who would probably have lobbed the ball nine out of 10 times off target, found to her dismay, the one occasion coming at the wrong time. That extra goal put Haryana out.

Luck inspired Kerala to do one better in the quarter-final when it edged out last year's runner-up Orissa in a late coup. Goals in the 79th and 80th minutes sent Orissa, which was leading 1-0 till that time, out of the championship in a stunning turn around. The only team with players in the 30 years age group, Kerala had in its ranks, Subitha Poovatta, Angel Adolphes, Seena, Sreelatha and Sunitha, capable of throwing up surprises. In fact, the team gave a tough run for Bengal in the semi-final, though the latter had things very much in control.

In a goalmouth melee Sevanjali Kumari (8) of Bihar slots home the only goal of the match against Maharashtra in the league phase. — Pic. K. GAJENDRAN-Pic. K. GAJENDRAN

Punjab and Tamil Nadu were two other teams to impress. As the host and the team which never gets many opportunities to parade its skills in Chennai, the performance of the Tamil Nadu girls came as a revelation. The way Vasanthi scored from top of the box, the opportunism shown by the fleet-footed Shalini, the effective striking ability of Sushila, the quick thinking of Ambika in midfield and the cool assurance of Ezhilarasi, the most experienced and a former India player, gave the host a balance that was at once striking. But, inexplicably, when the team played havoc in the early phase, it got bogged down in the quarter-final league to crash out on goalless notes against Bihar and Maharashtra.

At least Tamil Nadu had in Vasanthi and Shalini, two scorers who topped the list with eight goals each. For the organisers, that formed the crumb of comfort. For Renuka Lakshmi, the resourceful Tournament Director and her team, the championship was meant to give the sport a boost in the State. The satisfaction lay there and not in hunting for sponsors. Aside from the Rs. 8 lakhs that AIFF provides, the local organising committee had to raise another Rs. 4 lakhs to meet the budget needs.