“I don’t want this to sound bad but even the train that goes from one metro city to another has to pass through and stop at smaller nondescript stations. That is the nature of a journey. Sometimes, these stations will have nothing more than just a master and guard, but that doesn’t disqualify them from being an important landmark…”
Ghaus Mohammed has a natural tendency to embellish every point with an analogy, roll it into an anecdote, and illustrate its every day application. The commentator in him takes over even on the phone. Once you listen to him, you stop trying to figure out what the answer was and instead dwell on what the question really is. And therein lies the problem.
“The Santosh Trophy was and remains a prestigious event in the Indian football calendar,” says Ishfaq Ahmed, former player and now a member of the AIFF Technical Committee. “Admittedly, over the years, the scheduling of the tournament has left a lot to be desired, but it still occupies a very important space in the football landscape.”
He isn’t wrong. Bear on, this isn’t the last defence of a condemned fort. For the hundreds of players who knock on the fringes of the professional game in India, the Santosh Trophy is their hope. In this age of two leagues fighting for supremacy, fortunes and futures hanging in the balance, the tournament should take more significance than ever.
But not really. Devoid of funds, resources and even players (a fact several state coaches complain about every year), the tournament has stumbled, struggled, panted, gasped and blowed, before finally fulfilling its obligations and lying to rest. Till next year.
This year’s edition was staged in Ludhiana, up north, played in the heat at a stadium even pigeons deigned to visit. It was upwards of 35 degrees after all. Even the rafters were smouldering.
But the tournament must go on. Because as Ghaus Mohammed says, even big trains stop at small stations. And the Santosh Trophy is one of those older stations of Indian football. Neglected, forlorn, unseen and small. Those who stop here are either on a pilgrimage to professionalism or are the cargo necessary for fast paced development in the metro city.
Perhaps the death knell for the Santosh Trophy had sounded on the day the professional game became a lucrative alternative, but even today, trudging along it finds its admirers. It has its own evangelists — Mohammed among them — but for a majority, it is a tournament without consequence, held this year, when the season had passed by. Last season, it was scheduled bang in the middle of the club season, which meant that obviously no club players participated, but at least it ensured a certain crowd value.
“Main nahi keh raha ki hume history mein hi rehna chahiye, but history ki izzat zaroori hai bhai (I am not saying we should remain glued to history but we should respect history brother),” says Mohammed. “The Santosh Trophy is a legacy tournament. Its significance may have dipped in recent times, but then the federation should sit up and try and rebrand it. Maybe try and figure out why the value has fallen. Or see why the states participating in the tournament are fielding lesser players, or understand what happened to the states which used to do well, used to attract players, and the crowds. Where did they disappear?”
As Mohammed recalls, just being part of a Santosh Trophy used to, at a certain time, be a brand. That simple qualification opened doors into jobs, postings, promotions. Now with the only incentive in Indian football remaining professional, all these have slowly dried up.
“Where do you see sports quota for football in banks? Or in Air India, ONGC? Their teams have either been shelved or are makeshift and very weak.,” he says.
A huge number of people have naturally gravitated towards cricket. “Wahan paisa hain aur log bhi hain. Jahan earlier har school mein ek football ground hota tha, ab cricket ground hai (You find money and people there. Where earlier every school had a football ground, now we find a cricket field).”
Ishfaq sees the lack of players turning out for the states as a fault of the state system. Jobs or not, football in the state is only kicking because of the clubs (good or bad) that still support it. A simple illustration to strengthen his case can be found in Manipur. The state has the largest number of professionals playing in the top two leagues of the country. They now have a firm regular in the I-League in the form of NEROCA and another in Trau FC, who are constantly knocking at the door of promotion.
Manipur have only won the Santosh Trophy once (2002-03). They made another final, in 2010-11. And since then, they have not even qualified for the final tournament. They were not present at this year’s edition in Ludhiana. A chief reason for this of course is the mismanagement rife within the All Manipur Football Association — a situation which eventually led to all their decisions from 2008 being declared void by the Manipur Registrar in March last year. Without a state federation running operations smoothly, Manipur football is intravenously kept alive by its clubs.
If anything, this points to the significance of a second line of production for the game in India. Whenever we talk about mass participation, or argue about the necessity for an expanded league, it is to accomodate more players. The Santosh Trophy, technically fulfills it.
In this season of dread for Indian football, Ishfaq and Mohammed both still see some hope in the Santosh Trophy yet.
“It gives an opportunity to players who may need get to play top tier club football, and also in some states, it carries great significance,” Ishfaq says. He remembers how Kerala hosted the 2017-18 tournament in which the hosts failed to reach final. That failure fueled the Kerala Blasters’ journey in the ISL. They lost both, but in the proces, a lot of local boys gained entry into the bigger leagues and subsequent folklore.
For Ghaus Mohammed, the nostalgia and the relevance of this small nondescript tournament scheduled at the back end of a confusing season is undeniable. This tournament is the foundation stone for Indian football. It is from this quagmire that everything useful arises. He goes back to his analogy.
“I remember, once on a Rajdhani, I fell ill and the train stopped at a small station with just one platform. But thankfully even there, a doctor was available to check my blood pressure and diagnose me. It surprised me, but shouldn’t. Even in small places there are gems…”
Services won their first ever Santosh Trophy back in 1960 when they beat West Bengal 1-0 in the finals. They had to wait for 41 years to bag their second title. Eventually, in 2011, they got their hands on the celebrated silverware when they defeated Tamil Nadu 3-2.
Since then they have won the trophy four times, getting the better of heavyweights like Kerala, Maharashtra and Punjab on two occassions including the recently concluded edition. Yet, the team management did not consider themselves as one of the favourites before the start of the campaign.
The side had a mixed start to the tournament. In spite of beating Puducherry 3-0, they went down 2-1 against Telangana. Next, they were up against defending champions Kerala. It was a do-or-die match as another loss would have knocked them out of the tournament.
In a closely fought encounter, Services managed to edge past Kerala, courtesy of a 63rd strike from Bikas Thapa. The win not only helped them progress to the next round from Pool A in the South Zone. In the process, they also knocked out Sabbir Ali's Kerala.
"The win against Kerala gave us the confidence that this can be our year. Bengal had already bowed out and now Kerala went out of contention. So, we thought that if we can stick to our game plan and with a little bit of luck we can reach the semis at least," said Anustup Sarkar, a member of the team management.
The team embarked on an unbeaten run and registered a place in the semi-finals after blowing away Meghalaya 5-0.
"If the loss against Telangana was an eye-opener, then the win over Kerala boosted our confidence. We practised really hard since February. Our methods are a bit different since all our players come from an army background. We play tough football and this set of boys had some quality as well to give the so-called powerhouses a run for their money," revealed Sarkar.
Sarkar spoke of quality and it showed in the semi-final against Karnataka. It was a brilliant give-and-go between Nitin and Thapa which unlocked Karnataka's defence and the former then sent in a low cross into the box which was tapped home by PC Lallawmkima.
"Most of the times we play out from the back. We do not like to play long balls. We move the ball quickly and that makes life difficult for the opponent," said Thapa, who broke into the Services team for the first time in this edition and has stolen the limelight by scoring three crucial goals including the winner in the final against Punjab.
Salwade and Sarkar knew that clinching the championship would not be easy as they would be playing Punjab in front of a vociferous crowd in Ludhiana.
"Punjab have players who are stout and they use their physical superiority to their advantage by playing long balls. So we decided that we would press high while chasing and when we have the ball we will move forward by playing only ground passes," revealed Sarkar.
Their high press game reaped dividends as Harjinder made a mess of a square pass from his fellow centre back and Thapa rifled a shot into the net from outside the box to net the eventual winner.
Promotion lends motivation
"I play for Army Red. In the previous year, I could not make it to the final squad for Santosh trophy. This year I gave my blood and sweat in the selections. We are guaranteed promotion if we manage to at least reach the semi-finals of Santosh Trophy. So, after qualifying from the group stage, there was no looking back for me. Now that we have won the title I will get a promotion which will help me support my family better," said Thapa who came to India in his teens from Nepal to earn a living by playing football.
For others like skipper Suresh Meitei and goalkeeper Vishu VK, they hope that the Santosh trophy win would catapult them to the national stage and some I-League clubs will offer them a contract.
"After the win I have received a few offers. Previously, the army management would not give us NOCs to play for other clubs but things have changed now. I want to play at a higher level which is only possible if I get a club which plies their trade in any of the professional leagues," said Metei who is in talks with TRAU FC for the upcoming season.
Vishnu, who won the trophy for the second time with Services, also hopes that fortunes will change this time as he has more experience under his belt.
"When I won for the first time in 2015 I was 21. Generally, teams prefer goalkeepers with experience. Now I have pulled off some good saves in the final as well against Punjab. Now I hope, that some professional team will offer me the opportunity to play."
If Jiten Murmu and Rajesh S were the breakaway stars from the previous edition of Santosh Trophy, this year we have the likes of Thapa, Metei and Vishnu who have shown that they have the potential to perform in a professional league. Only time will tell whether these players will find the suitors they long for.