GOA: On the field, Akeraj Martins is having a stormer for Goa in their Santosh Trophy game against Services. With his team a goal down, the teenager first latches onto a ball from midfield and lobs the opposition keeper for the equaliser. Then he cuts inside from the right wing, darts past a couple of defenders and plays a defence-splitting pass for Cajetan Fernandes to score the winner. Off the field, a couple of FC Goa officials look on in silence. Their blank stares reveal nothing but it would not be surprising if Akeraj finds himself in an FC Goa jersey next year.
Every year, the Santosh Trophy brings with it, fresh questions about its relevance in a footballing scenario where professional clubs have taken deep root. Once upon a time, it used to be the pinnacle of football in the country. Now it features a mix of I-League rejects and rookies. But this year, it has a fresh purpose. Carefully scanning all the action are scouts from at least a couple of Indian Super League teams. A couple of brilliant displays and a young player can go straight from the Santosh Trophy to playing alongside the likes of Florent Malouda and Bernard Mendy.
Kerala Blasters have had scouts observing the Kerala team’s games. “Our focus is on identifying local stars and we have some of the best youngsters in the state playing in the Santosh Trophy,” said Blasters CEO Varun Tripuraneni. “We saw last year the kind of reaction that our local stars like CK Vineeth, Rino Anto and Mohammed Rafi got. Even a Kerala player playing for some other team like Anas Edathodika had fans flocking to him. So it is important that we have good players from the state in our team. While we are watching all teams in the Santosh Trophy, our focus will be on Kerala.”
It is a view that is echoed by FC Goa, who’ve had officials watching the home team’s games. “We are looking at all teams, but the focus is on the local boys,” said an FC Goa official. “I think we have seen how important having a local core to the team is, and that will become more important once the league becomes a longer one.” While few teams had scouted the Santosh Trophy last year, the timing of this year’s tournament made it all the more convenient. “The scheduling of the Santosh Trophy makes it easier to scout it this year, as there is ample time left to plan for the upcoming ISL season. We have our eye on a few players,” the official said.
Chennaiyin FC sources too revealed that they were keeping a close eye on the tournament but decided not to send the scouts because the Tamil Nadu team did not qualify. Last year, Arjun Tudu had made the step up straight from the Santosh Trophy to the ISL. This year, there may be many more names in that list.