How Indian football can make the best of Kerala’s Santosh Trophy win

Abandoned by his parents, Bibin Ajayan grew up at a foster home in Aluva, Kochi. He picked up football there, got spotted by local coaches, moved to Bokaro where he polished his skills and returned to Kochi to play in the Kerala Premier League for Golden Threads, a football club that eventually became his home.

Quite literally, given that he lives at the club’s hostel and, occasionally, slip inside their office.

Ajayan’s teammate, Jesin TK, by his own admission, hadn’t played even a district-level match before being thrust onto the national scene by Bino George, the ingenious Kerala coach. The duo’s state team captain, Jijo Joseph, made football his life from an early age. But when he isn’t playing, the charismatic player works as a clerk with the State Bank of India.

The trio was highly influential in Kerala’s triumphant Santosh Trophy campaign, even scoring in the penalty shootouts played against West Bengal Monday’s final that was out in front of packed stands in Manjeri, with thousands more following the live stream.

The unlikely heroes of an undervalued tournament.

Ajayan, Jesin and Joseph are today the toast of a football-loving state. Until a fortnight ago, however, they were nothing but faces in the crowd of hundreds of aspiring players who lit up Kerala’s local football scene but weren’t seen as good enough for beyond that.

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

Third run

When, in 2009, Sunil Chhetri injured himself while playing for Delhi in the national championship, few would have predicted it would leave the tournament hamstrung.

Chhetri, already an important member of the national team back then, had hurt his right ankle while playing for East Bengal in an I-League match in Mumbai. That injury got aggravated when he turned up for Delhi during the Santosh Trophy, which led to him missing the five-nation Nehru Cup.

The then India coach Bob Houghton, who had called this a ‘nonsensical’ tournament, wasn’t pleased. The following year, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) banned national team players from competing in the Santosh Trophy. In 2013, the federation’s general secretary declared the tournament did ‘not serve any purpose.’ “From the footballing perspective, I don’t think that Santosh Trophy has much relevance. We have to look into that (whether to continue or not),” he had said back then.

It’s now reached a stage where the states are not permitted to select players who are registered with Indian Super League or I-League clubs. That leaves them with the option of looking at players who have either been discarded by the clubs or turn to the local leagues to fill their rosters, which need to have at least five under-21 players.

This, in essence, means the players who are selected for Santosh Trophy are, at best, the third rung of Indian football given that the cream is taken by ISL clubs and the next best ones are snapped up by I-League sides.

Box-ticking exercise

It wasn’t always like this. Most Indian sides, including the famous 1956 Melbourne Olympics team, comprised players who had earned their stripes in the Santosh Trophy. At other domestic tournaments such as Rovers Cup and Durand Cup, the scouts lined up to spot talent. But at the Santosh Trophy, the selectors picked their national side.

It started to change with the launch of the National Football League (NFL) in 1996. The state-based national championship suddenly looked out of sync with the trends in world football and after NFL made way for a relatively more professional I-League, the Santosh Trophy became the unwanted child for the AIFF, which held it just as a box-ticking exercise so as to continue getting financial grants from the government.

While that is reflected in the comments Das made in 2013, the importance – or the lack of it – given to the Santosh Trophy can be gauged by the investment made into it. The AIFF spends between Rs 1-1.5 crore to stage the Santosh Trophy, a pittance compared to roughly Rs 15 crore spent on holding the I-League and pocket change if the ISL costs are taken into account – the premier division spent Rs 17 crore on maintaining the bio-bubble itself last year.

The prize money is another indicator: the ISL champions get Rs 6 crore, I-league winners get Rs 1 crore while Santosh Trophy champions get Rs 5 lakh.

Where it lies on the priority can also be gauged from the fact that during the two years of the pandemic, while ISL, I-League, and second division I-League took place, the Santosh Trophy wasn’t – in fact, its last edition was held in 2018-19 in Ludhiana.

Reimagining football pyramid

In this backdrop, the most recent edition of the Santosh Trophy should force the AIFF to re-imagine India’s football pyramid in a way that there’s a proper space for this traditional competition on the domestic calendar rather than for merely academic purposes.

“If we look at impressions from this edition, the tournament did so well even without any promotion or strategy,” former FIFA development officer and current president of Football Delhi, Shaji Prabhakaran says. “This shows the value of the Santosh Trophy is far bigger than what many imagine. If there’s a proper strategy, we can push the game to every nook and corner.”

The final between Kerala and West Bengal, which is turning into a fascinating rivalry, wasn’t a one-off. Kerala’s football-loving population filled the stands for almost every game and on the web, thousands more followed the streaming.

With club football still a hard sell in the country, despite two-and-a-half decades of trying, the state-based championship can again regain relevance as a pan-India tournament, carve out its niche by stocking up the interest of the locals as it did with Kerala and Mizoram, and also become a feeder for the clubs.

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

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