Manipur unstoppable

S. SABANAYAKAN

MANIPUR flourished and the rest perished. This was the story, albeit an old one, of the 10th edition of the senior National women's football championship held at Siliguri.

The triumphant Manipur team with the trophy.-S. PATRONOBISH

For a decade, Manipur has been dominating the championship, barring the two years when Bengal took the honours. It is indeed remarkable of Manipur to sustain the winning streak for such a long period.

What is the reason for Manipur being such a powerhouse in women's football? The All-Manipur Football Association has put in place a foolproof system for producing quality players. Most importantly the players take great pride in wearing the state jersey.

How many other states, including Bengal can boast of such virtues. First of all, most of the states simply do not bother to develop men's football, leave alone worrying about women's football. When women's football was amalgamated with the men's at the beginning of the last decade, so much was expected from the merger. Yet, women's football has gone down to a new low as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) does precious little to develop the distaff side.

On the brighter side, Orissa's climb to the final, via a controversy though, should augur well for the state. The hegemony of Manipur and Bengal was broken for the first time. And the team which brought about such a scenario was Kerala and not Orissa. Kerala conceded two goals in the final three minutes against Orissa, which pitted Bengal against Manipur in the semifinals and Orissa versus Bihar. It was indeed shameful on the part of Kerala to act contrary to the spirit of the game.

In winning its eighth title, the last five in a row, Manipur amply demonstrated that Orissa was nowhere up to playing the National championship final. The three goals, coming through N. Geetarani Devi (34th), Th. Tababi Devi (69th) and K. Lokeshori Devi (77th), were just reiterations of the power and fluency displayed by the defending champion. The scoreline would have been much higher but for some dogged resistance by the Orissa defenders.

Bengal's cup of woe was complete when the state body appointed two coaches having their own views on team composition. As the coaches were waging a silent yet sustained war between them, the team suffered badly. Poor conditioning, lack of match practice and above all complacency, typical of most Bengal sides, especially in football, brought forth shame on the state.

The emergence of Bihar as the semifinalist in the last two editions should augur well, though two rival associations operate in the state and try to slit each other's throat. Yet, most of the team members playing together for a considerable period has had its effect. Bihar was the only team in this Nationals to lose by just a 0-2 margin to Manipur in the quarterfinal league phase. Bihar took Orissa to the tie-breaker in the semifinals where it lost owing to lack of experience in taking penalty kicks, the verdict in favour of Orissa being 3-2.

While last year's finalists, Manipur and Bengal, and semifinalists Bihar and Maharashtra were seeded in the quarterfinal league, Orissa (Group 'A') Kerala (Group 'B') Tripura (Group 'C') and Assam (Group 'D') qualified from a pool of 12 teams. The preliminary league phase was played at Kolkata (Group 'A'), Bongoan (Group 'B'), Siliguri (Group 'C') and Malda (Group 'D').

The Group 'E', quarterfinal league, played at Siliguri, saw Manipur, Bihar, Tripura and Assam being clubbed together, while Group 'F', played at Kolkata had Bengal, Maharashtra, Orissa and Kerala. Expectedly, Manipur topped Group 'E' with an all-win record. Manipur beat Tripura 8-0, Assam 5-0 and Bihar 2-0. Bihar finished runner-up with six points, beating Assam 2-1 and Tripura 3-0. Assam ended third and Tripura last.

There was a drama of sorts in Group 'F' with Bengal, Orissa and Kerala lodging a protest against Maharashtra fielding six players four of whom were from Punjab and two from Goa. When the records available with the AIFF office in Goa reached Kolkata, Maharashtra was debarred. This reduced Group 'F' to a three-team affair.

Bengal played a 1-1 draw with Orissa and beat Kerala by a brace of goals. This meant Kerala needed a win over Orissa to advance into the semifinals, while Orissa could do with just a draw. The teams began the game in the right spirit with Kerala pressing for victory. Kerala opened the scoring and Orissa equalised the next minute. After being 1-1 at halftime, Orissa went ahead to lead 2-1 till the 77th minute. Then, three of the senior defenders of Kerala shouted to their bench, seeking permission to allow Orissa to score.

Till that moment, it never looked as if Orissa had the capability to conquer Kerala by the end of regulation time. When the coach responded positively, the defenders slackened allowing Orissa to score two goals in two minutes. The 4-1 scoreline was enough for Orissa to pip Bengal as the group champion by better goal difference. All Bengal could do was to shoot off a letter to the AIFF secretary and proceed to Siliguri to play Manipur in the semifinals.

It is time for the AIFF to stop such practices and help keep women's football clean.

The results:

Final: Manipur 3 (N. Geetarani Devi, Th. Tababi Devi, K. Lokeshori Devi) bt Orissa 0.

Semifinals: Manipur 4 (Sh. Rani Chanu, Sh. Shanti Devi (2) and N. Geetarani Devi) bt Bengal 0; Orissa 3 (Kalpana Sahoo, Sradhanjali Samantaray, Prathama Priyadarsini) bt Bihar 2 (Madhu Kumari, Reena Gupta) in tie-breaker.

Quarterfinal league, Group 'E': Manipur 8 bt Tripura 0; Bihar 2 bt Assam 1; Manipur 5 bt Assam 0; Bihar 3 bt Tripura 0; Manipur 2 bt Bihar 0; Assam 3 bt Tripura 1. Group 'F': Bengal 1 drew with Orissa 1; Bengal 2 bt Kerala 0; Orissa 4 bt Kerala 1.

Preliminary league, Group 'A': Orissa 11 bt Karnataka 0; Tamil Nadu 7 bt Karnataka 0; Orissa 2 bt Tamil Nadu 0. Group 'B': Kerala 1 bt Goa 0; Haryana 1 bt Madhya Pradesh 0; Kerala 4 bt MP 1; Goa 4 bt Haryana 0; Goa 1 bt MP 0; Kerala 11 bt Haryana 1. Group 'C': Tripura 4 bt UP 1; Tripura 3 bt UP 0. Group 'D': Assam 7 bt Rajasthan 0; Assam 2 bt Chandigarh 0; Chandigarh 4 bt Rajasthan 0.

Highest scorers

10 - Sradhanjali Samantaray (Orissa). 7 - Th. Tababi Devi (Manipur), Anjana Pegu (Assam), Soona K. (Kerala).

Hat-trick

Sradhanjali Samantaray (Orissa) vs Karnataka. Anjana Pegu (Assam) vs Rajasthan. Twinkle Fernandez (Goa) vs Haryana. Soona K. (Kerala) vs Haryana. Th. Tababi Devi (Manipur) vs Assam.