How Indian football can make the most of winning the Kerala Santosh Trophy

Abandoned by his parents, Bibin Ajayan grew up in a foster home in Aluva, Kochi. There he picked up football, local coaches noticed him, moved to Bocaro where he honed his skills and returned to Kochi to play in the Kerala Premier League for Golden Threads, a football club that eventually became his home.

Literally, given that he lives in a club hostel and occasionally sleeps in their office.

Ajayan’s teammate, Jesin TK, by his own admission, didn’t even play a game at the district level before Bino George, the genius coach of Kerala, kicked him out on the national stage. The captain of the national team of these two, Jijo Joseph, has beautified football with his life since he was a child. But when he’s not playing, the charismatic midfielder works as a clerk at the State Bank of India.

The trio were very influential in Kerala’s Santosh Trophy triumph campaign, even scoring in a penalty shootout against West Bengal during Monday’s final played in front of a packed grandstand in Manjeri, with thousands more watching the live broadcast.

Incredible heroes of an underrated tournament.

Ajayan, Jesin and Joseph are today the toast of a football-loving country. Until two weeks ago, however, they were just faces in a crowd of hundreds of ambitious players who lit up the local Kerala football scene, but they were not considered good enough to go beyond that.

Their rise to prominence – at least for now in Kerala – has given the tournament life.

Third step

When Sunil Chhetri was injured in 2009 while playing for Delhi in the national championship, few would have predicted that the tournament would leave difficulties.

Chhetri, already an important national team player at the time, injured his right ankle while playing for East Bengal in an I-League match in Mumbai. That injury worsened when he appeared for Delhi during the Santosh Trophy, causing him to miss the Nehru Cup of five nations.

The then Indian coach Bob Houghton, who called this tournament ‘pointless’, was not satisfied. The following year, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) banned national team players from competing in the Santosh Trophy. In 2013, the general secretary of the association stated that the tournament ‘has no purpose’. “From a football perspective, I don’t think the Santosh Trophy is of great importance. We have to consider that (whether to continue or not) “, he said at the time.

Now there is a phase where states are not allowed to select players who are registered in Indian Super League or I-League clubs. This leaves them the opportunity to watch players who have been rejected by clubs or to turn to local leagues to fill out their lists, which must have at least five players under the age of 21.

This, in essence, means that the players selected for the Santosh Trophy are, at best, the third step of Indian football as the cream is taken over by ISL clubs and the next best won by I-League teams.

Box typing exercise

It wasn’t always like this. Most of the Indian teams, including the famous team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, consisted of players who won their ribbons at the Santosh Trophy. In other domestic tournaments such as the Rovers Cup and the Durand Cup, scouts lined up to spot talent. But at the Santosh Trophy, the selectors chose their national side.

It began to change with the launch of the National Football League (NFL) in 1996. The National National Championship suddenly seemed out of tune with world football trends and after the NFL gave way to a relatively more professional I-League, the Santosh Trophy became an unwanted child for the AIFF. just as an exercise in ticking boxes to continue receiving financial support from the government.

While this is reflected in the comments Das made in 2013, the importance – or lack thereof – given to the Santosh Trophy can be assessed by investing in it. AIFF spends between Rs 1-1.5 million to organize the Santosh Trophy, which is a trifle compared to the approximately Rs 15 million spent on I-League maintenance and pocket money if ISL costs are taken into account – the First Division spent Rs 17 million on the maintenance of the bio-bladder itself last year.

The cash prize is another indicator: the ISL champions receive Rs 6 million, the I-League winners Rs 1 million, while the Santosh Trophy champions receive Rs 5 million.

Where the priority can be assessed and from the fact that during the two years of the pandemic, while the ISL, I-League and Second League I-League, the Santosh Trophy was not – in fact, its last edition held 2018-19 in Ludhiana.

Rethinking the football pyramid

In this context, the latest edition of the Santosh Trophy should force the AIFF to re-imagine the Indian Football Pyramid in a way that there is adequate space for this traditional competition in the domestic calendar, not just for academic purposes.

“If we look at the impressions from this edition, the tournament went so well even without any promotion or strategy,” says former FIFA development officer and current president of Football Delhi, Shaji Prabhakaran. “This shows that the value of the Santosh Trophy is far greater than many imagine. If there is the right strategy, we can push the game into every corner. ”

The final between Kerala and West Bengal, which turns into a fascinating rivalry, was not a one-off. The football-loving population of Kerala filled the stands for almost every game, and thousands of them watched the broadcast on the web.

With club football still hard to sell in the country, despite two and a half decades of trying, the state championship could regain its importance as a pan-Indian tournament, occupying its niche by stimulating domestic interest as it did with Kerala and Mizoram , and also become the breadwinners of the clubs.

“After Mizoram won the title (2013-14), we missed the opportunity,” Prabhakaran says. “This time, we should let it go.”

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