Tamil Nadu comes out on top

FOR those, and this includes the All India Football Federation, who believed that the interest for football in Tamil Nadu has taken an alarming down curve, Tiruchi provided an inspiring response. The town, known for its famous temples such as the Rockfort and Srirangam, had once hosted the lively Rockfort Trophy all-India tournament (now defunct) and in 1984 the Federation Cup tournament. Football lovers still talk of those days and of the players of that era with a sense of nostalgia.

However, with no major football activity in this town since that Federation Cup event, it was thought that the following for the sport had vanished until officials of the Tiruchi District Football Association were made to sit up recently when they conducted the South Zone phase of the Under-21 National football championship. Definitely this meet cannot be compared with a glamour event such as the Federation Cup, involving the major clubs, and it was evident from the fact that the TDFA had not gone in for major expenses like erecting temporary galleries at the St. Joseph's Higher Secondary School ground, which was the venue.

On the first day, when just a few spectators had braved the scorching heat to witness the match, the TDFA officials seemed vindicated for deciding only on a few rows of chairs alongside a thatched structure to provide shade, to cater to the donors. However, once news went round on the football event, a sizeable number began to turn up to provide an inspiring sight even as embarrassed officials made quick arrangements for more chairs to be spread on two sides of the ground where there were trees to provide shade. "This is a revelation," exclaimed a TDFA official, who had only recently turned an office-bearer.

With the crowd rising to over 3000 on the final day when host Tamil Nadu beat Kerala to qualify as the sole representative from the zone for the main round of the national championship in Ballia (UP), this zonal event must have certainly opened the eyes of both the Tiruchi unit and the Tamil Nadu Football Association on the hidden interest in the sport which needs to be tapped through a positive approach in administration. From the usual grumble that one hears in Tamil Nadu football circles about `no sponsors' or `nobody coming forward to take responsibility', what unfolded in Tiruchi needs to be commended and even brought to the AIFF's notice. It is such positive signs, which end up giving a new thrust to the sport, something the Asian body has been advocating with regard to India. Now, if TDFA has plans to revive the popular Rockfort tournament, the TFA should go all out to support the body and even help in making the event a success.

In the fitness of things, the zonal championship also proved a shot in the arm for Tamil Nadu football. It is not for the first time that the State has won and qualified for the main round, but in recent years such en<147,1,7>thusiasm and the urge to do well as on this occasion was lacking. In R. P. Ashok Kumar, who plays for the Netaji SC in the Chennai FA's senior division league, the State had a wonderful striker, whose energy and the nose for goals made him an instant hit with the Tiruchi fans. He had a hat-trick in that high scoring 7-0 win over Andhra Pradesh. Then there were midfielders Rajanikanth and skipper Sundaravanna Kannan who can be very resourceful. In defence Abdulla Sha was a revelation as a dead-ball exponent. In short, coach Madhavan, no newcomer to the State football team, could get the best from his players and that made all the difference.

Tamil Nadu's good show right from the first day suddenly made the contest for the single berth, a multi-dimensional one. Until then it was thought Kerala, Karnataka and AP (since it had won the previous year's event in Thiruvananthapuram) were the frontrunners. AP however was a major disaster, losing all its matches including to Pondicherry, which gave a surprisingly good account of itself. Karnataka looked a team which was adequate but lacked sharpness in attack though mention must be made of Sreenivasan, a striker with a clever sense of the ball and Kuttymani, a tireless attacking midfielder. Kerala had depth but when the time came for the crucial encounter, it was handicapped by health problems to its players, some of whom, such as Joby, Shaaji and Sudeesh, were the pillars of the team. Their fitness could have made the twins in the attack, Anees and Aseem, a lively pair in Kerala's frontline.

All this does not take away anything from Tamil Nadu's fine run. That it needed only a draw on the final day spoke of its strength as the only team, which had, till that final day's play, not conceded a single goal. With a healthy `goal difference' of 10, Tamil Nadu could have stopped Kerala with a draw but instead it scripted a 2-1 win to thrill the local fans. There was a touch of a positive mind, a sense of togetherness in the team that augurs well for the State's future in football.

The results: Tamil Nadu beat Pondicherry 3-0, beat AP 7-0, drew with Karnataka 0-0, beat Kerala 2-1; Kerala beat AP 3-0, drew with Karnataka 1-1, beat Pondicherry 5-1; Karnataka beat Pondicherry 1-0, beat AP 1-0; Pondicherry beat AP 3-1.

Final placings 1. Tamil Nadu 10 pts: 2. Karnataka 8; 3. Kerala 7pts; Pondicherry 3; AP 0.

— S. R. Suryanarayan