One wonders if the Santosh Trophy would have received such prominence in the media, had it not been for Mizoram’s fairytale story.
With each passing season, conducting the so-called national championship has become an academic exercise. Top players are kept away, teams go unprepared and the quality is abysmal. The All India Football Federation spends not more than Rs 1 crore to conduct the tournament; pittance compared to the Rs 15 crore spent on the I-League.
There’s no incentive to give it all in the Santosh Trophy, monetary or otherwise. The winners get Rs 5 lakh, 14 times lesser than the Rs 70 lakh earned by the I-League champions.
But this wasn’t always the case. Most Indian sides, including the famous 1956 Melbourne Games team, comprised of players who had earned their stripes in the Santosh Trophy. At other domestic tournaments such as Rovers Cup and Durand Cup, the scouts lined up to spot talent. But at the Santosh Trophy, the selectors picked their national side.
With the National Football League (NFL) taking over as the premier domestic competition in 1996, the tournament started losing its importance. It became even more irrelevant after NFL gave way for a professionally run (relatively) I-League.
Former India coach Bob Houghton’s move to bar top national team players from participating in the Santosh Trophy in 2009 further took the sheen away from what was once a much-cherished trophy. He did that after striker Sunil Chhetri injured himself while playing for Delhi and was ruled out of the Nehru Cup, which was to be held a month later.
The AIFF then agreed (they in fact made it a rule) that players who are registered to play for I-League clubs cannot play in the Santosh Trophy. The federation even went as far as thinking off scrapping it completely, but better sense prevailed as they feared a fierce and enormous backlash.
The arguement that continues to work in favour of the Santosh Trophy is that it helps in expanding India’s already-scarce talent pool. Many feel that young players, who are overlooked by I-League clubs, can use this tournament as a platform to get noticed. But so poor has been the quality of matches that perhaps hasn’t been the case of late. Until Mizoram happened of course.
The North-eastern side’s sharp, attacking football was an exception and made it easy to understand why they were unbeaten throughout the tournament. While it may be irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, the Santosh Trophy still holds a lot of significance for states like Mizoram that are deprived of national success and recognition.
Mihir is a senior correspondent, based in Mumbai.