Restoring Santosh prestige: Innovative touch, more in store

Eugeneson Lyngdoh believes his boys are just one step away from history and will add to the rich history of Shillong and Meghalaya.
Former India midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
Former India midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh.

It would be an understatement to say that the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh has had some high-profile visitors in recent weeks. In January, the stadium hosted the Spanish Super Cup encounter which saw Barcelona convincingly beat Real Madrid.

Three days later, the Supercoppa Italiana came calling as Inter convincingly drubbed Milan. Then there was a friendly game, PSG taking on a representative team of the Saudi league, a match that would have been a relatively low profile if not for the fact that Leo Messi was up against Cristiano Ronaldo.

On Saturday, football will once again return to the stadium. And in a surreal twist to the tale, following in Ronaldo’s and Messi’s footsteps will be the Santosh Trophy teams of Karnataka and Meghalaya in the final of the 76th edition of the tournament.

The two semifinals Punjab against Meghalaya and Karnataka against Services were played out at the same venue, albeit minus the people who had thronged it for the more high profile games. The 60,000 seater stadium was punctuated by the eerie sound of silence. If the plan was to tap into the support of the Indian diaspora, it clearly did not work. When the agreement to host Santosh Trophy matches in Riyadh was first announced, it was met largely with bewilderment.

Questions were asked on what the AIFF hoped to gain from such a move. If AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey’s statements after the two semifinals are to be taken at face value, then filling the stadium and generating revenue was something that the AIFF had hoped for.

“I was hoping Kerala or Bengal qualify for the semifinals. If they had qualified, maybe a lot of people from Kerala would have come to watch the matches. If these football fans who lived in Saudi Arabia turned up, it would have helped in generating revenue,” Chaubey was quoted as saying.

However, on Thursday, AIFF general secretary Shaji Prabhakaran told TNIE that the move was only meant to bring the much-sidelined Santosh Trophy — once the country’s premier football tournament — back into public consciousness.

“It was not our expectation that there would be a capacity crowd when we are holding the tournament in a neutral venue,” he said. “The idea was to disrupt things and get everybody talking about the Santosh Trophy. I think we have succeeded with that.” 

Prabhakaran also said that the move had proved to be a great opportunity for the players who had made the trip to play in the same venue and use the same facilities as some of the biggest stars in the world. “There is a difference in the body language of the players who are here, when they get to play in a foreign country and use some of the best training facilities,” he said.

“It has been an added motivation throughout the tournament. Look at the results — the defending champions (Kerala) did not qualify. West Bengal, who have won it more times than any other team, did not qualify. Manipur did not qualify. I think that was because every team was more motivated than usual.”
Time will tell what results, if any, the AIFF’s experiment with the Santosh Trophy will yield. But Prabhakaran is certain of one thing — this is only the start of that experiment. 

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