Services beat hosts Punjab 1-0 thanks to a goal from Bikash Thapa, to win the 2018-19 Santosh Trophy football tournament at the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana on April 21.
“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.
If you tuned in on Sunday (April 21) afternoon to All India Radio, you would have been treated to their live coverage of the Santosh Trophy football tournament final, a match in which Services beat hosts Punjab 1-0. Mohammed wasn’t on it, but his peers were. Covering a long forgotten tournament, via a long forgotten medium at an absurd time on the laziest of all Sundays.
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There is a power in the radio. Monarchs, prime ministers, warmonger's and peacekeepers have all used it to their benefit. Sport has moved on, but even today sport on radio is glorious. The lack of a fixed visual is mindspace to fill in the blanks. For an afternoon game of domestic Indian football — admittedly not the most beautiful form of the game — the radio should be mandated as choice of medium. If the Indian football bosses at the top had any desire to actually build the tournament, and resurrect its popularity among the masses, they would do worse than choose this method. In this age of rebranding, refurbishing and bringing back the old, radio commentary for the Santosh Trophy would do both a favour.
And the tournament needs one now.
“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.
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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?”
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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.
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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…”
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