Nothing much to cheer about

A. JOSEPH ANTONY

The Punjab team which won the men's title.-M. MOORTHY

FEW would have believed it was the football competition that was going on at the Lal Bahadur Stadium. Notwithstanding the captive audience rustled up from schools, the sparse crowd was indication enough of football's decline here.

Between the Helsinki and Rome Olympics not less than half a dozen players from Hyderabad were regulars in the National squad. Indian football's finest hour came when it finished fourth in the Melbourne Olympics, a position it may never reach again. Contributing to the country's cause on that occasion were several players from the Twin Cities.

For a city that produced players of that calibre, the home side's performance in the National Games was nothing short of pathetic. Arjuna Awardee and mentor of the current Indian captain, Baichung Bhutia, Nayeemuddin, an illustrious member of several Hyderabad and Bengal triumphs, had coached the State squad, but in vain.

In a field of just eight teams, already depleted because of the ongoing National Football League (NFL), Andhra Pradesh tumbled out of reckoning at the end of the league phase itself, unable to make the last four grade. Worse still, it failed to open its account, incapable of scoring even a single goal.

The quality of the competition had little to cheer about. Kerala's skipper Asif Sahir was the event's top-scorer. He excelled in the encounter where his team inflicted a humiliating 7-0 defeat on the home side. Gurvinder Pal Singh of Punjab was next in the list of honours with a treble against his name.

Punjab continued its reign at the top, handing out a 2-1 defeat to Bengal in the final, in what was a replay of the 1994 Games showdown at Pune. A barren first half saw some rough play between the two fairly competitive sides. After change of ends, Rahim Nabi nodded the ball home off a Pradip Indu floater in the 72nd minute.

Saranjit Singh got the equaliser for Punjab when he slotted the ball in identical fashion off a Gurvinder Pal Singh pass. The latter got into the scoring act himself, fetching the match-winner in the second session of extra-time.

For the bronze, Tamil Nadu recorded a 6-5 verdict in the shootout after it held Services to a 1-1 draw in full-time.

At the Shivkumar Lal Stadium, Gosha Mahal, Manipur's stranglehold on the women's title was never in doubt. In the final, it subdued Bengal 1-0 through Shanthi Devi's 10th minute goal. In the play-off for the bronze, a brace by captain Shradhanjali Samanta Rai featured in Orissa's 4-0 win over Andhra Pradesh. Sunita Soreng (17th), Pinky Bompal Magar (65th) and Rai (75th and 78th) found the mark for the winner.

The victorious Manipur women.-M. MOORTHY

Some of these names kept cropping up every now and then, like that of Rai, also India's captain. The women's matches were high scoring ones and two players shared the honour of being top scorers, both of them from Manipur — Tababi Devi and Geeta Rani Devi with half a dozen goals each.

Two others, also from the same State, had a brace each to their credit — Bembem Devi and Lokeshori Devi. Orissa's Aruna Dibyadarshini had a tally of five goals, while teammate Rai had four goals to her credit. Bengal's Rinku Ghosh, AP's Sujatha Kar and Bihar's Annu Kumari had a treble each.

Back to the men's competition, Goa, with four of its top sides engaged in the NFL, showed some flair but could not sustain its scoring to take it to the semifinals. In its last league fixture, it ran into Services, which stopped the western side's campaign 1-0 through Saroj Gurung's goal in the 64th minute.

Punjab's rise to the top was steady. In the semifinals, it posted an authoritative 4-0 win over Services, after leading 3-0 at half-time. Braces each by Gurvinder Pal Singh and Surjit Singh were the highpoints of the champion side's display.

As though not content with the score, the Punjab forward line kept bombarding the Services citadel time and again. The latter session alone saw not less than six threatening goal-bound attempts sail over the horizontal.

Conditions were ideal for quality football. The grassy Lal Bahadur Stadium field looked inviting, the weather was mild. But for some dew in the mornings the ground condition was fine too. Sadly, the overall standard of play never really rose to inspiring heights. Mute spectators to the drastic drop in standards were stalwarts of yesteryear, Peter Thangaraj and Yousuf Khan.