KOCHI: The response from Milton Antony is almost instant, even a little sheepish. The Lakshadweep head coach has just finished his lengthy team talk in the dressing room and is ready to share his post-match thoughts after their 5-0 defeat at the hands of title contenders Kerala at the Jawaharlal Nehru International stadium in Kochi on a hot Wednesday morning.
The question is on whether any of these Lakshadweep players compete at a professional level given that they were expected to lose by double the margin, but enjoyed moments of real quality where they troubled Kerala's defence with just ten men for a majority of the game.
"Oh no, not all. None of them are professionals. They are all mostly fisherfolk or doing other jobs back in Lakshadweep. Most of them are playing at such a big stadium like this for the first time in their lives. These are all new experiences and the Santosh Trophy is a massive stage for them," said Milton who is an experienced coach from Kerala tasked with helping Lakshadweep find their feet at a still unfamiliar stage.
In fact, they only had their first taste of the Santosh Trophy football as recently as the 2016-17 edition. Just like how Lakshadweep is geographically separated from the mainland, the football also feels detached. The word 'professional' is something that seems alien to the footballing community in the union territory.
Similar to Kerala's sevens football circuit or Goa's famed inter-village competitions, Lakshadweep has a vibrant footballing culture where small-scale competitions are held across the various islands. But it is only when these players cross the sea and reach the mainland to compete in the Santosh Trophy that they realise that there is a professional world of football different to what they're exposed to. Players conjure from the various islands for selection trials and have short camps before a team is quickly put together.
Lakshadweep team's assistant coach Naseeruddin Bailavi who hails from the Kalpeni island tries to explain it.
"The grounds there are significantly smaller and we don't really play eleven versus eleven. We also don't really have grass grounds there and play on sand or mud surfaces. It's mostly just in schools and colleges that they get to experience any national level competitions and there's nothing much after that. There aren't even any qualified coaches barring one or two," he said.
Things slowly started to change especially after the Lakshadweep Football Association got affiliation with the All India Football Federation according to their captain Abdull Nazar. But even now, they have only nine coaches registered with LFA, and 108 players registered and only one approved club.
"We can't really make a living out of playing football back in Lakshadweep. Most of the players have other jobs with the majority of them being fishermen. But we want to take back experiences like this. Getting to play professional football thanks to the Santosh Trophy is something we want to take back with us and share with others," said Abdull.
Even though the sheen of the Santosh Trophy has reduced over time, for teams like Lakshadweep, it is a priceless experience.
"We call trials and camps and players come from various islands and we pick them. They just come together for the tournament after it, they will go their separate ways and we put a team together for the next Santosh Trophy. Hopefully, the players get the confidence to venture out and explore and maybe one or two can go on and play in the I-League or ISL," said Naseeruddin.