No club players fiat liberates Services

The triumphant Services team.-Pics: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Drawing away from the dominance of the I-League dictated states, the 66th National football championship depicted a parable of extraordinary efforts as two teams, long accustomed to mediocrity, leapt out of the annals of oblivion, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

Nudged out of favour by the quirky obligations of progress, the oldest contest for national supremacy, the Santosh Trophy, re-asserted its significance finding a new champion from the ‘outer world'. The preponderance of club football in the last 16 years has seen the emaciation of the inter-state competition, which had for long perpetuated the glory and passion of Indian soccer. When Services lifted the glittering trophy, instituted 71 years ago, after a gap of five decades it spoke for the hitherto languishing bigger world outside the club domain.

Drawing away from the dominance of the I-League dictated states, the 66th National football championship depicted a parable of extraordinary efforts as two teams, long accustomed to mediocrity, leapt out of the annals of oblivion. Services, which finally triumphed, and Tamil Nadu, the challenger in the final, revived the charm and interest that transcended the lopsided influence of the inter-club league. The tournament, held at various venues across Odisha before the semifinals and the final were played at the famous Barabati Stadium in Cuttack, offered the perfect setting for the occasion.

“The significance of the Santosh Trophy cannot be denied. We need the senior national championship to sustain the interest of football in the country,” said Anil Kamath, Director, Competitions, of the All India Football Federation. “When the greater majority of the states in the country do not have the established club league, the Santosh Trophy is the tournament they always look for,” the senior AIFF official, who had been in charge of the tournaments for a long time, added.

This statement was a remarkable departure from the stance the AIFF was forced to adopt some time ago, perhaps under the influence of the foreign coaches who had decried the utility of the inter-state format. The national federation, which more often than not finds itself in the tweezer-grip of foreign prescriptions professing development, is trying to reinstate its own thinking.

Aware of the mandate of development — which comes as frequent reminders from the world and continental bodies, FIFA and AFC — the AIFF is in a state of redefining the format. Such a process is more realistic and focussed now.

The Santosh Trophy on this occasion barred players of the current I-League from participating. This was a welcome move for the majority of ‘have nots', who sought to make the most of the forced equilibrium. What turned out to be a big hurdle for traditional bigwigs like 31-time champion Bengal and other former champions Goa and Maharashtra — the three account for 11 out of the 14 I-League teams — became an advantage for the others.

Quite contrary to what happened in the I-League, which put the southern presence to extinction with the departure of United Kerala and Hindustan Aeronautics SC, Bangalore, the Santosh Trophy celebrated the re-emergence of south as a dominant force. While Tamil Nadu and Kerala — the two traditional powerhouses from the south — reached the semifinals, Services gained strength from the strong presence of players from Kerala in its ranks. Manipur, the only team outside the southern influence, was shown the door by Tamil Nadu in the last-four stage, while Services shut out Kerala, one of the most impressive outfits in recent times.

V. V. Farhad of Services with the 'Best Player' trophy.-

“It would do a world of good to the sport in Tamil Nadu if our team wins the title,” Syed Sabir Pasha, a noted striker of the Indian national side in the 90s, said, putting the importance of Santosh Trophy in perspective. From what it was before Pasha started his playing career, football in Tamil Nadu has had a steady decline. Making it to the final of the tournament only once, in 1972, it took Tamil Nadu 40 long years before it could do an encore, with Pasha masterminding the show this time. Pasha, incidentally, was born in the same year that Tamil Nadu reached its maiden final in Margao, where it lost to Bengal. “I have grown up hearing about it and always aspired to see my home state win the title,” Pasha said.

Pasha was commanding a young team with an average age of 23, the harvest of the local league structure in Chennai. Pasha, a possessor of the AFC ‘A' licence, drew his coaching inspiration from the Indian youth development coach Colm Toal, with whom he works as an assistant. Pasha did exceedingly well in motivating the likes of U. Jayakumar and A. Reagan, who gave a lot to hope with their performance in the attack.

The team showed remarkable cohesion as Pasha, a big fan of the Spanish giant Barcelona, stressed on ‘shape' and got Tamil Nadu to play a very positive brand of football. It was mostly because of the neat patterns in the attack that Tamil Nadu prevailed over sides like Mizoram, Delhi and former champion Manipur before it looked at creating history by reaching the final for the second time. L. Charles Anandraj and S. John Paul also showed a lot of promise in the Tamil Nadu midfield, while S. Karthick, with his fine ball playing skills, was a big revelation on the flanks.

Much like what the Tamil Nadu coach looked to instil in his boys, Services showed the way of doing it in the final. Services, which once regularly contributed to the National side with greats like Peter Thangaraj and Shyam Thapa among others, had suffered a slide making it wait half a century for the title (having last won it in 1960-61). It required the merit of its young coach V. Sajith Kumar to bring about the edge in its performance and win the title.

Services relied on speed and overall organisation for its success. The team, which stays together for the greater part of the season, showed a fine understanding and neatness in its approach. “This is the time to do it,” Sajith, a man of few words, radiated the confidence he was able to build up in the ranks. Presenting a fine mix of north-eastern and Kerala players, the Services' show dovetailed aggression with control. While the Keralites P. S. Sumesh and Rary S. Raj provided solidity to its defence, the Services attack rode on the fluency of its midfield formation — Sanju Subba, Gordon Zoramchhana, Z. V. Horin and Shadip Rai. The two forwards — V. V. Farhad and Subrata Sarkar — showed the knack for scoring and interchanged positions to great effect. Farhad, who was the most prolific in the striking zone, showed great promise and was named as the best player of the final. Both Subrata and Farhad scored in the final, after Sanju Subba had opened the account, to complete Services' dominance. Tamil Nadu gave two late replies, but that was not enough to realise its dream.

“We have done it. It took a little while coming, but it feels great that we could do it,” Sajith was terse as usual even after ending five decades of title drought.

THE RESULTS

Final: Services 3 (Sanju Subba 45+2, Subrata Sarkar 49, V. V. Farhad 67) bt Tamil Nadu 2 (Shanta Kumar 82, M. Ramesh 89).

Semifinals: Services 2 (Subrata Sarkar 5, Marsook (own goal) 50) bt Kerala 1 (Vineeth Anthony 83 pen); Tamil Nadu 2 (A. Reagan 35, M. David 85) bt Manipur 0.