From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.34 :: Aug. 26, 2010
The victorious Bengal side with the Santosh Trophy.
Denson Devadas speaks about his new-found “home” when he is asked about the future of his domicile in Bengal. Having long left his native coast in Kerala, Devadas revels in his new role as a “saviour” of Bengal football. A familiar name in Kolkata's football fraternity for his towering presence with I-League side Chirag United SC, the ebullient midfielder from Kannur helped Bengal regain the prestigious Santosh Trophy after a long gap of 11 years. His two goals in the final of the 64th senior National Football Championship helped the host to a 2-1 triumph against Punjab. Overlooked by Kerala, which did not apply the ‘domicile' rule to get players in its squad, Denson became Bengal's prized possession in the run-up to the side's 30th title.
Devadas, a defensive midfielder with his club, showcased his striking skills in ample degree when the team needed an attacker desperately. Bengal, missing three of its four strikers to injury, looked at someone to finish its moves against an opponent known for its offensive forte and T. K. Chathuni's ward came to his side's rescue, showing great composure and spirit. “Though I started as a striker, he (Chathuni) started using me in the midfield when I played for Viva Kerala,” recalls the player.
This title was also significant because it helped Bengal, which last hosted the tournament in 1986-87, to maintain an all-win home record. Beginning with the inaugural edition, which was held in 1941-42, Bengal has won the crown on all the nine occasions that the championship was held in its capital city.
The heady celebrations that followed with the title returning home after a prolonged gap seemed to belie the ongoing club versus state debate raging during the tournament. The changes professed in the ‘Vision' project to transform Indian football do not allow much space for the inter-state championship, which once enjoyed the foremost position in the country's soccer calendar. There is a schism in the administrative think-tank about its future and the voices lately have been growing louder about dismissing the old tournament to give way to an all-engrossing club league format. The mood against the tournament became evident when the AIFF decided to keep the national players away from this year's meet.
“I was surprised to see there was no spotter (talent scout) for the AIFF present during the tournament,” says former Indian captain and Bengal coach Shabbir Ali. “This title will definitely help in rejuvenating the sport in Bengal, so how can we dismiss its importance?”
Ali, who guided Salgaocar to a National Football League (the previous name of I-League) title in 1998-99, does not agree with the current mindset of the AIFF. “Santosh Trophy was important when football was at its peak and I don't feel the sport will regain its glory by doing away with important tournaments like this,” Ali, who played in the triumphant Bengal side of 1979, says.
Denson Devadas celebrates after scoring the winning goal in the Santosh Trophy final for Bengal.
“What will happen to those players who are not playing in the I-League?” asks Jagir Singh, the veteran Punjab coach. Jagir, who has two Santosh Trophy titles under his belt, says it is still a tradition in Punjab and elsewhere in India to pick up good players from Santosh Trophy as it acts as a supply line for club and country. “The tournament serves as a buffer line to the clubs and it should be preserved that way,” he says. “A big majority of the national team players suffer from a sense of attainment and create problems for their respective state teams by making untenable demands. It's better for the tournament if they are kept away. It gives a breathing space for the unknowns who are desperate to make it to the big league.”
Elaborating the importance of the meet, Ali says: “Teams from only five-six states play in the I-League, which again is dominated by foreigners. The Indian players still look up to the Nationals as a place to excel.”
Calling for a balanced approach suitable to Indian conditions, the Bengal coach praised teams like Mizoram, Delhi and Chhattisgarh, who showed great promise in the latest edition. Both Delhi and Mizoram, considered way outsiders, broke into the elite quarterfinal league, led by a group of very talented youngsters who had both the temperament and skill to rub shoulders with the best in the country.
There was a lot to be seen from the lesser known sides. Chhattisgarh presented the likes of striker Wasim Raja and attacking midfielder Mohammad Siddiqui while for Delhi Tuishim Mashanngva, Monu Chowdhury and Vikas Rawat showed finesse in attack and midfield. In fact, the Delhi-Chhattisgarh pre-quarterfinal match, which the former won in penalties, stood out as one of the best matches of the tournament as the latter got over a two-goal deficit to force the contest to penalties. Mizoram, the only side from North-East to make it good, removed former champion Railways to make it to the final eight. Delhi did creditably well in the quarters by remaining undefeated against opponents like Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Mizoram.
However, it ultimately paid the price for conceding equalisers at the fag end of ties, against Bengal and Tamil Nadu in particular, and missed out on a semifinal spot.
The last four stage saw three sides from the previous edition with the exception of Punjab, which moved up at the expense of Services. Tamil Nadu, led by its striker P.C. Riju, reached the semis in style for the second year running, even beating eventual winners Bengal on its way. But it failed to get the better of Punjab in the semis. Bengal took the first step in reasserting its supremacy by removing defending champions Goa via the tie-breakers before playing out of its skin to down Punjab in the final.
Final: Bengal 2 (Denson Devadas 45+2, 78th) bt Punjab 1 (Balwant Singh 30th).
Semifinals: Bengal 5 (1) (Robin Singh 86th) bt Goa 4 (1) (Milagres Gonsalves 20th) in tiebreakers; Punjab 3 (Balwant Singh 16th, 56th, Maninder Singh 35th) bt Tamil Nadu 1 (M. Elamurugan 90+3).
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