New Delhi: As you walk through the campus of Sharda University in Greater Noida towards one of their football fields you can hear a crowd cheer for Punjab. Come closer and a couple of banners inform all and sundry that the Santosh Trophy, the national football championship, is in progress. About 200 students have bunked class and, along with officials and players of the teams from North Zone are watching Punjab take on Jammu and Kashmir which ended 1-0 in favour of Punjab. The first game of the day had seen Delhi hammer Himachal Pradesh 6-0.
Once the pride of the footballing fraternity of India; the tournament is a far cry from its heydays, both in terms of the standard of football and the infrastructure. The constant is its pan India presence.
“The Santosh Trophy is a great institution for Indian football. Winning it with Bengal remains one of the highlights of my career,” says the legendary forward Shabbir Ali. “Today the best players are not in this competition, but mind you the football played is still quite good.”
“All players need to be put on the same platform, and there has to be more focus from the point of view of selectors for the national set up. It will be a fantastic incentive for the players,” he adds.
Back in 2009, an injury to now Indian captain Sunil Chhetri in Chennai is when all hell broke loose against the national championship. The then coach, Bob Houghton barred national team players from taking part in the competition which began in 1941 and helped scout unparalleled talent in the years gone by.
Currently all teams are required to have at least five U-21 players in the squad, while playing three at all times is mandatory.
“It would be good to blood more than three youngsters a game in the system,” says Telangana coach Ali who would have probably liked a bigger talent pool to choose from.
Since 2011, the competition has been bereft of the crème de la crème who have been restricted to the top flight, the I-League with the recent addition of the flashy Indian Super League. The prospect of bringing the two leagues together it would seem is a cocktail too irresistible for the All India Football Federation.
“The AIFF is only giving permissions and sanctioning the required funds to the states. With the two leagues, the women’s league, and the age group national leagues, there is only so much we can do from the center, the states need to step up,” outlines the General Secretary Kushal Das. He goes onto add that informing the parent body about any requirement in due time would be better than a last minute arrangement.
“The Santosh Trophy in the present format is unique to our country, and we try to give it our best,” quips Das as he reasons further that the onus is indeed on the states. The AIFF have a September to May calendar which in effect ties their hands with options regarding the competition as the club based tournaments are the priority.
With Indian football set to undergo a revamp in the domestic system with respect the club structure, the brunt is borne by the states. The calendar is set to change sooner than later and understandably there is a lot of planning that is in the works. FIFA has made it clear that two leagues in the same country is not a possibility.
“There needs to be a basic standard and some protocols put in place. That will help put together a structure for a tournament of this magnitude,” says the President of the Delhi Football Association (Football Delhi), Shaji Prabhakaran, a former FIFA development officer for South and Central Asia.
The AIFF have set the ball rolling in terms of structural change and Prabhakaran believes that it is a necessity. Having recently taken over at his post, he has been vocal about taking the game to the states.
“If there is to be forward movement for us in the sport, we have to look beyond just the top flight leagues,” he adds. Just the leagues alone comprise 20 teams which don’t pan across the country.
The overwhelming favourites this season is Bengal as one would expect as they chase a 33rd title. But in the recent past football world over have seen astonishing and marvelous comebacks from various situations. But the longer the administration takes to iron out flaws big and small Indian football deep rooted problems will become an old habit.