Overwhelming spectator response

The overwhelming spectator response for the Santosh Trophy final was a tribute to the excellently organised event.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

A traffic jam at Delhi Gate was a throwback to the days when fans from the old city would throng the Ambedkar Stadium, every seat would be taken well before the kick-off. Watching football was a joy. The overwhelming spectator response for the Santosh Trophy final was a tribute to the excellently organised event.

The victorious Kerala team. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

It was also a tribute to the hard work put in by Kerala, the most disciplined and popular team. In winning the title Kerala only drove home the point that unflinching loyalty always pays. A shame that players from Bengal and Goa, States from where the majority of the National Football League teams come, chose the timid way by shirking and letting their fans down. The reason: they had to protect their limbs for the sake of their clubs. The Goans came but did not take it too seriously while most of the top Bengal players did not turn up for various reasons.

True, some of the key players from these two States earn their bread and butter from playing professional football but what of self-pride? This pride was the clinching factor as far as Kerala was concerned and there was not a better team to claim the champion status. Under the guidance of coach M. Peethambaran and manager C. C. Jacob, it proved the most compact and formidable combination.

Apart from the consistent Kerala, there were two main contenders for the top spot. Manipur, fit and agile; Punjab, ambitious and robust. The rest simply made up the numbers. Former National coach, Syed Nayeemuddin, was saddled with a tough job of motivating Bengal but the team lacked the spirit and the grit.

Punjab's Baldeep Singh tries to tackle Shabeer Ali of Kerala during the final. Kerala won 3-2 in extra time. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

The domicile rule allowed the States to pick the best and in the process their performance improved drastically, the examples being Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. But the rating of the tournament came in for criticism by the current National coach, Stephen Constantine, who questioned the wisdom of forcing the top players to participate in this championship. "Who would want to get injured?" was his refrain.

Former India captain and ace midfielder, Parminder Singh, had an appropriate reply. "You can never play football if you worry about getting injured." In any case, the exit of Goa and Bengal did not affect the quality or the popularity of the tournament. In Kerala, Punjab and Manipur the fans had teams and players who were willing to give their best, without a worry of getting injured.

"I just told my players to stick to positive football. Attack had been our strength and we just decided to play to our strength," remarked Jacob. It also helped Kerala that nine of its players came from the State Bank of Travancore (SBT). The SBT has silently played a role by providing employment and facilities in the State's endeavour to emerge the football champion. But it would also be interesting to see how it performs in the NFL, which offers far more intense competition — 22 matches in less than four months, extensive travelling, varied weather and ground conditions, not to forget the pressure.

Daljit Singh of Punjab finds the target easily off a penalty as the Manipur goalkeeper Bijen Singh dives to the wrong side in the semifinals. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

As V. P. Sathyan, an all-time great defender, observed, "It was a fantastic tournament. It was moving to see a packed house for a National Championship final. It augurs well for the game and I must say this was possible due to the efforts of the Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) and the media. This event provided a big boost to football and it was a pleasure to be associated with it." Sathyan, along with former internationals S. Brahmanand and Anadi Barua, was a talent spotter.

All the three watched every match and came to a simple conclusion: talent was waiting to be harnessed. Only proper direction and facilities were needed to restore the image of the game. "Some of the players were outstanding. As good as many in the National team. They played skilful and robust football and looked in tune with the demands of the modern times. Kerala, Punjab and Manipur gave us many thrilling moments. I would say it was a quality championship."

Kerala deserved the honour. In players such as medio Abdul Naushad, defender Abdul Basheer, and striker Sylvester Ignatius, the Kerala team had three of the finest names in Indian football. Naushad, a remarkably cool man, was the star of the tournament with his tactical brilliance. Basher was unbeatable at the back and Ignatius beyond the reach of the best of defenders.

Substitute Naushad Pari (No. 7) scores Kerala's last goal in the semifinal against the Services. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

"Loyalty was the key," admitted Jacob as he summed up Kerala's fantastic performance in the final when it came back to bury Punjab's dream in the extra time 3-2. The contest may not have gone that distance had Lenal Thomas not missed a penalty in the closing stages. But Ignatius saved Thomas a nightmare by producing a curling shot from outside the box with 13 minutes left for the extra time session to end. And then Basher took over to defend the lead. Basheer was well supported by K. Bineesh, K. Sameer and Jaseer Karanath. The presence of N. P. Pradeep in the midfield eased the pressure on Shabeer Ali and Bijesh Ben. Upfront, Ignatius received support from Abdul Hakeem. Overall, Kerala was the most compact side.

Punjab was propelled by some magnificent work by Hardeep Gill, Parveen Kumar and Sukhjinder Singh in the midfield; the overlapping of Harish Sharma and the untiring Baldeep Singh; the towering presence of Harpreet Singh and Jaspal Singh in defence; and of course the excellent work by goalkeeper Kameshwar Singh in the penalty shootout against Manipur in the semifinals.

Manipur, the defending champion, attracted the spectators with its brand of positive football. Short passes and rapid counter attacks marked Manipur's racy game and it was a pity it failed to make it to the final. Tomba Singh was the star of the team with his imaginative play in the midfield. Tactically, Manipur enjoyed some superior moments on the field but it ran out of ideas when confronted by a tenacious and equally athletic Punjab. In striker Narendra Singh, midfielders James Singh and Dharamjit Singh, and defenders Surkumar Singh and Manitombi Singh it had some reliable performers. "If only we had availed the chances," lamented coach Ratankumar Singh.

Among the other teams, Delhi enhanced its reputation by making it to the quarterfinal league, thanks to the contributions from Sunil Chetri, Rishi Kapoor, Praveen Rawat, Prashant Jaggi, goalkeepers Rajat Guha and Viney Singh. In fact, Viney landed a contract with Salgaocar on the basis of his show in this tournament. The role of former Border Security Force star Sukhpal Singh Bisht as coach of the team was also important.

Xavier Vijay Kumar (No. 8) of Karnataka scores a goal past Assam's Sonam Pinto Bhutia (3) and goalkeeper Bimal Bagdas in the league phase. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Also to impress were midfielders Jatin Bisht and Shamsi Reza and goalkeeper Naseem Akhtar from Uttar Pradesh, which pulled off the biggest upset of the championship by eliminating Maharashtra at the preliminary league itself.

Sikkim gained from Baichung Bhutia's presence on the bench. Bhutia did not play due to a knee injury but guided his State to its first ever entry to the quarterfinals of the National championship.

The defining moment of the championship was the curling shot that Ignatius produced to give Kerala the title.

Also heartening was the sight of fans jostling to buy tickets for the semifinals and final. As N. K. Bhatia, the organising secretary, said "Delhi got the honour to conduct the championship after 60 years and I'm happy the spectators responded with such warmth." The traffic jam outside the stadium was proof indeed.

Interesting facts

* Santosh Trophy is the only tournament, which involves all the States and Union Territories of India.

* The name Santosh comes from a place by the same name, which is now in Bangladesh.

* The first Santosh Trophy was won by Bengal, which beat Delhi 5-1 in the final.

* Bengal has won the Santosh Trophy for a whopping 29 times. Besides it had finished runner-up on 10 occasions. Punjab is placed next with seven wins followed by Kerala now with five wins.

* Chuni Goswami of Bengal was the only player to play in the finals of both the Santosh Trophy and Ranji Trophy tournaments.

* Manipur, which made its debut in 1973, won its first title in 2003.

* Bengal and Goa were the joint winners in 1982, the only occasion when the trophy was shared. Goa then went on to win on two other occasions.