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Santosh Trophy is still relevant

Published : Feb 13, 2016, 11:11 pm IST
Updated : Feb 13, 2016, 11:11 pm IST

Action during the Santosh Trophy qualifying match between Puducherry and Services at the Nehru Stadium in Chennai. (Photo: N. Vajiravelu)

Action during the Santosh Trophy qualifying match between Puducherry and Services at the Nehru Stadium in Chennai. (Photo: N. Vajiravelu)

The Santosh Trophy has lost its lustre in the midst of the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) but the national football championship hasn’t lost its relevance altogether. The tournament means a lot to states that don’t have teams in the I-League and the ISL. Even those that have a team in the ISL such as Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu treat the Santosh Trophy with respect.

Former India coach Bob Houghton was right to call for the exclusion of I-League players from the national football championship because they all risked losing focus and fitness by playing too many games in a season. Instead of bringing all teams to one state, the Santosh Trophy now features zonal qualifiers. Ten teams from five zones, divided into two pools, compete in the quarterfinal league of the final phase. The current model is sustainable as it doesn’t put undue strain on organisers like the previous all-India jamboree.

The Santosh Trophy is an important event on the calendar of Railways and Services, the government institutions that continue to fill their sports quota vacancies regularly. It whets the two teams’ appetite for national level exposure against a backdrop of dwindling all-India tournaments. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the AIFF to include a couple of more institutions that fulfill their sports quota obligations. The federation can consider giving entry to an umbrella revenue team comprising Central Excise, Customs and Income Tax players. Accountant General’s Office is actively absorbing football players across the country and an AG’s team comprising the best from different states is also a suggestion the AIFF can mull over.

National coach Stephen Constantine believes in casting his net wide and is expected to keep an eye on the final phase of the 2016 Santosh Trophy, starting in Nagpur from February 29. That’s why even players with ISL experience such as Romeo Fernandes of FC Goa and ATK’s N. Mohanraj are taking part in the vintage tournament this year. The national team isn’t exactly brimming with talent in all positions and Constantine is right to keep his selection options open. If a couple of new players from the Santosh Trophy make the grade for the national team, it would be a PR coup for the tournament.

The AIFF must announce the dates of Santosh Trophy zonal qualifiers in advance to enable the states to prepare well. As of now, the state associations aren’t able to plan their inter-district tournaments properly as a result of the uncertainty over the Santosh Trophy qualifiers.

When Mizoram won the Santosh Trophy in 2014, the first in the history of the north-eastern state, the whole of Aizwal went into party mode. Inter-state rivalries do have a certain charm and the onus is on the AIFF to keep the fire burning. In a vast country like India, there will always be takers for a tournament which is a great platform for those who don’t play the game professionally.