Whose tournament is it anyway?

Published : Jun 27, 2009 00:00 IST

Champion outfit… Goa with the Santosh Trophy.-PICS: R. RAGU
Champion outfit… Goa with the Santosh Trophy.-PICS: R. RAGU

Champion outfit… Goa with the Santosh Trophy.-PICS: R. RAGU

The latest edition of the Santosh Trophy raised a pertinent question. Should professional players be allowed to play in the tournament that is widely regarded as a platform for young players from outside Indian football’s traditional nerve-centres? By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

India coach Bob Houghton is known for his distaste for the Santosh Trophy. Last year, he called it ‘outdated and antiquated’, while at the conclusion of its latest edition, he attacked the tournament with his most crunching two-footed tackle yet.

“If you are serious about qualifying for the World Cup, then you should forget playing nonsensical and stupid tournaments like the Santosh Trophy, Durand Cup and the IFA Shield,” he said at a press conference in Delhi. “Professionals playing Santosh Trophy against a bunch of amateurs at the end of the season don’t make any sense. Do you believe Steven Gerrard will play for some hotchpotch trophy at the end of the season?”

It’s a question that can be looked at in several ways. You could, of course, beg to differ. You might say, for instance, that Houghton, for all he has achieved in Europe — he coached unfancied Malmo to the 1979 European Cup final, no less — does not understand the culture of Indian sport, where inter-state rivalries matter more than in most countries. Or you might argue that in a football-playing nation where scouting networks barely exist, the Santosh Trophy provides young players from outside Indian football’s traditional nerve-centres to catch the eye of I-League coaches.

Or you could agree with Houghton’s central premise. While his pronouncements about the Santosh Trophy might sound almost rabidly disparaging, they stem from a valid concern — player fatigue.

Let’s examine the calendar of a typical I-League player, and what effect the Santosh Trophy has on it. Let’s take the case of someone who isn’t part of the Indian team, but plays for, say, Chirag United. His 2008-09 season would have begun with the Kolkata League in July-August last year, followed by the I-League’s kick-off in September. The last I-League season ended in mid-April, about a month before the Santosh Trophy.

If that wasn’t enough to furrow Houghton’s brow, two of his most important players, Climax Lawrence and his Dempo, Goa and India team-mate Mahesh Gawli, didn’t even get that one month’s rest.

Dempo qualified for the AFC Cup in Kuwait and progressed as far as the pre-quarterfinal, played on May 27. By that time, the Santosh Trophy had already begun, so Climax and Mahesh immediately flew back to India to make it for Goa’s final cluster match against Orissa, in Tiruchi on May 29. After winning its pre-quarterfinal match against Mizoram, Goa moved to Chennai, where it eventually played five more matches, culminating with the final on June 14.

So now, they can finally put their feet up, right? Wrong. Both Climax and Mahesh are part of the National team’s preparatory camp that begins on June 25 in Delhi. At the conclusion of the camp on July 7, the team flies to Spain and Portugal to play friendlies in preparation for the Nehru Cup in August. Once that ends, the I-League begins all over again.

The logical solution to this, and one which would leave the ‘platform for young talent’ aspect of the Santosh Trophy intact, is to relieve I-League players — or at least players in the Indian team — from having to play the tournament, by decree. The All India Football Federation had indicated recently that such a step may be in the pipeline.

“There are different opinions regarding the Santosh Trophy. We have discussed the possibility of making the Santosh Trophy a tournament for only amateur players (non-I-League),” the AIFF General Secretary, Alberto Colaco, had said at the start of the tournament. “A decision on this will have to be taken after discussing with all State Associations.”

The 63rd edition that ended recently in Chennai might, therefore, have been the last Santosh Trophy featuring I-League professionals. Curiously, though Goa won the tournament, its two biggest names didn’t influence the result conspicuously — apart, of course, from the intangibles that experienced players bring to young sides. In defence, Mahesh Gawli looked reasonably solid but his performances didn’t leap at the spectator. In midfield, Climax had a good tournament statistically, contributing three goals as well as settling his team’s nerves with a calmly taken penalty in the shootout in the final, but looked understandably jaded, and drifted in and out of games.

Despite striker Marcus Mascarenhas’s six goals, Goa’s brightest spark was probably its skipper and goalkeeper Felix D’Souza, and not just for his two saves in the final shootout. D’Souza played a significant role in Goa managing to emulate the state’s 1983-84 team in winning the tournament without conceding a single goal. His two left-handed saves from Tamil Nadu striker P. Muthu in the final 10 minutes of the semifinal were remarkable.

Runner-up Bengal played some of the tournament’s best football, and scored two of the tournament’s most memorable goals — Lalam Puia’s match-winner against Punjab in the quarterfinal league after Surojit Roy’s eye-of-the-needle pass was made for the football aesthete, while Gouranga Biswas’s second goal in the semifinal against Services was perhaps the best demonstration of the rapid counterattack. In that match, coach Raghu Nandy played a major role in dismantling Services — which had beaten Bengal 4-1 in the 2008 semifinal — with his deployment of striker Surojit Bose in a withdrawn role, which gave the Services midfield very little space to work with.

Services, like Bengal, entered the quarterfinal league directly, having finished in the top four last year, and was perhaps lucky to make the semifinals — it didn’t manage a single goal from open play, and the penalty that gave it a 1-0 win against Karnataka was earned — as replays suggested — through a refereeing error.

The other losing semifinalist, meanwhile, enjoyed — or endured — a tournament scripted by a born box-office barnstormer. As host, Tamil Nadu — with as many as seven I-League players in its squad — had its best chance yet of winning the tournament, its best finish being a second place in Goa in 1972-73.

After scoring 35 goals up to the pre-quarterfinals — all but one of Golden Boot winner P. C. Riju’s 12 goals came during that spurt — the quarterfinal league proved less productive. Yet, even after conceding a last-minute equaliser to Bengal and losing 1-0 to Punjab in a match it should have won for the chances it created, Tamil Nadu stormed into the semifinals with a 3-1 win over a Manipur side that had till then oozed flair and charisma.

And then, inevitably, the semifinal exit. Two images will remain long after the rest have faded — first, Muthu, the hat-trick hero against Manipur, falling to the floor in agony after toe-poking indecisively, feebly and straight at Felix D’Souza after getting one-on-one with the Goa ’keeper. And then, with seconds left on the clock, centre back Kali Alaudeen, till then such a domineering presence at the back, wrapping his arm round Francis Fernandez in the box, panic freezing his veins as the Goa midfielder turned goalward.

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