"The Santosh Trophy can be considered to be a World Cup of sorts when it comes to footballers from Kerala". These are the words of Kerala's head coach Bino George ahead of his team's Santosh Trophy campaign opener against Lakshadweep on Wednesday. His words might seem exaggerated especially at a time when the significance of Santosh Trophy has been significantly diminished.
Gone are the days when the Santosh Trophy was among the grandest of occasions in the country for India's footballers and which helped many Kerala footballers to achieve celebrity status. However, look closer at the context of Bino's reflections and it starts to make more sense.
"A few players get to play the ISL and then others get to compete in the I-League. But for a lot of other footballers, it is a struggle to sustain themselves in the country. Winning a tournament like Santosh Trophy offers the opportunity of securing a government job. That will in turn secure their future. These are things which cannot be overlooked and we are very focused on the task at hand," said Bino ahead of their Group B fixture in the south zone qualifiers.
Kerala is one of the favourites to qualify from the group thanks to the depth in talent but the former Gokulam Kerala FC head coach understands that there won't be any easy fixtures.
"Football is a game where even the better team can lose on the day. All we can do is to be prepared even though training and preparations wasn't easy due to all the challenges posed by Covid-19, but we are ready," he said.
Football returns to JNI stadium
In fact, football will be returning to the Jawaharlal Nehru International stadium in Kochi after a long gap. The ground which has been home to Indian Super League outfit Kerala Blasters over the years has been lying empty for a while now.
With the ISL being played inside a bio-bubble in Goa, the stadium has not seen sporting action. But with the beginning of Santosh Trophy, activities are slowly returning to the venue. Besides Kerala, Puducherry will also be in action against Andaman and Nicobar on Wednesday. All eyes will be on the Jijo Joseph led side which has as many as fifteen debutants in the 22-member squad.
"Other teams in the competition have gone with players who are not locals. But we have tried to give opportunities to the local talent and that's what I've always believed in. To try and promote local footballers who can go on and make a career for themselves," Bino opined.