From being Indian football’s most prestigious domestic tournament, the Santosh Trophy has come a long way — down.
Changes in rules that restricted the age of the players and the introduction of the long season of a national league have all contributed to the decline of the tournament, which used to enjoy so much popularity and whip up tremendous passion, from both footballers and fans.
It is now a sidelight that struggles to gain attention, especially at a time when the ISL is on and the I-League is around the corner. For the country’s young players though, it is an excellent opportunity.
Some of them would be in action over the next week at the Corporation Stadium as the South Zone qualifiers for the Santosh Trophy kicks off on Tuesday. Six teams are split into two groups.
The winners of the groups will advance to the final stage of the tournament, to be held in Mizoram early next year. Host Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra make up Group A, while Karnataka, Telengana and Puducherry will battle it out in Group B.
Since a team gets only two matches, the margin for error is very small. That is something Bino George, Kerala’s coach will particularly be wary of.
In the 2018-19 edition, Kerala had failed to qualify from the Sout Zone leg despite being the defending champion of the tournament (at the National level, that is). Bino, who had trained Gokulam Kerala for both its appearances in the I-League, would not want to relive the disappointment his predecessor V.P. Shaji.
Kerala does look strong on paper, but as it found out in the last edition, things could go awfully wrong in a format like this.
“There is hardly a second chance, and that is a worry,” Bino told The Hindu. “It would have been better if the tournament was held on a round-robin basis; the teams would have got more matches then.”
He is confident of Kerala’s chances. “But Tamil Nadu is a strong rival in our group,” he said. “Karnataka, which plays in the other group, also looks a good side.”
In the opening match, Kerala takes on Andhra.
ONE of them has played in the AFC Cup, eleven others are part of either an I-League or an ISL club. The Kerala Santosh Trophy team’s 20-member squad has talent in abundance.
This was on show in the opening match of the Santosh Trophy South Zone qualifiers where the hosts thrashed Andhra Pradesh 5-0 at the EMS Corporation Stadium, Kozhikode on Tuesday.
While Andhra had players from district-level clubs, Kerala’s starting eleven alone had seven players part of a national-level club. This is part of a growing trend of clubs letting their reserve team players participate in the Santosh Trophy to get some match time.
Leon Augustine is one such example. The Bengaluru FC academy product progressed all the way to the first team and participated in the AFC Cup in 2018 against Abahani Dhaka. He then dropped down the pecking order and now, it is all about climbing his way back up.
“We want game time and being on the bench is of no use. So we are in search of playing time and wherever we get it, we should take it. I played for Karnataka in the Santosh Trophy for one season. The team had many reserve players from BFC and we finished third that year. It was a valuable experience,” said Augustine. The 21-year-old finished with one goal and one assist on Tuesday.
Another goalscorer was Emil Benny who came off the bench to score two and looked a constant threat. The 19-year-old moved to Gokulam Kerala FC from Kerala Blasters just a month ago and Santosh Trophy is his rite of passage. It is his first senior tournament and it has started on the right note for him.
“Playing for Kerala is a matter of pride and at the same time, I get to play alongside players who are involved with ISL and I-League clubs which is a great learning experience. Also, I get to play under an experienced coach like Bino George. The quality of opposition was not up to the mark today but as the tournament progresses, it will get tougher. It is good for us youngsters,” said Emil.
Kerala are reaping the benefits of having two national level clubs from the state. Six players in the squad are from Gokulam Kerala FC while three are from Kerala Blasters. They also have one player each from Chennaiyin FC, Bengaluru FC and Ozone FC. Another goalscorer of the day was Shihad N who is a Gokulam product.
“Kerala have ISL and I-League calibre players and that was on full display today. We don’t even have a proper league back in Andhra Pradesh. We selected some players from district teams and had a brief camp in Bengaluru. They are like college-level footballers,” said Andhra coach Deena Bandhu Raj.
Kerala finished the match 5-0 but they could have easily added another five goals to the total. Such was the gulf in class. Result: Kerala 5 (Vibin Thomas 44, Leon Augustine 45+2, Emil Benny 53, 63, Shihad N 90+3) Andhra Pradesh 0.