The All India Football Federation (AIFF) decision to have the knock-out stages of the Santosh Trophy either in Jeddah or Riyadh in Saudi Arabia might as well contribute to the murder of the game in India.
The Santosh Trophy football championship is an interstate tournament and the winning state takes the title of the best football state in the country. Hence, the clamour among players to be selected and amongst fans to watch top-class football.
There was a time in the 70s and early 80s when states would vie to host the Santosh Trophy because of the prestige attached to the national championship. Somewhere down the line, as with many other tournaments, AIFF, under Praful Patel, opted to look the other way and the Santosh Trophy got a raw deal from the football house.
In time, the best players either left or were kept out. Soon teams were bereft of the cream of the crop of players. And with no cream, the Santosh Trophy became much like a cake with no appeal. Youngsters did get a foot in, but the tournament never reached the heights it was envisaged for.
There was a time in the life of the Santosh Trophy when the whole state, be it Goa, Bengal, Punjab, Kerala, etc, became elated to a euphoric pitch on lifting the title. Celebrations would ring through the nights in bars in Goa on winning and would continue in a variety of ways even days after. Such was the joy and pride of being crowned champions of the Santosh Trophy.
By moving the knock-out stages of the Santosh Trophy to either Jeddah or Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, AIFF appears to have fallen prey to the temptation of marketing or simply trying to fill its coffers at the cost of Indian football fans.
Any sport’s survival depends on its fan following. If football is richer than cricket in the world, it is simply because it has a bigger fan base than the latter. There was a time when football had a healthy fan base in Goa, Bengal, Kerala, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Punjab and even Tamil Nadu. Over time, this base has shrunk, and even with the advent of the Indian Super League, it is yet to reach its nadir again.
The AIFF, according to reports, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with their Saudi Arabian counterparts to “study the possibility of staging the final games of the Santosh Trophy in the West Asian country in February 2023.”
“The MoU that we signed with Saudi Arabia Football Federation, one was for hosting the Santosh trophy in Jeddah and Riyadh,” the AIFF president was quoted by reliable news agencies.
“Jeddah has more Indians there, but Riyadh is the capital. And so the government there can club it together with art and culture. So these are the areas we will discuss and maybe by January we’ll take a call,” Chaubey was quoted as saying.
“We will make it three years. See, it is not that easy. One year, it may not be successful, because several unexpected challenges may come up, but that does not mean you stop this tournament,” Chaubey said.
“So it’s a three-year thing and I am sure year-wise we will do well. We definitely have to see what the pace of improvement is, where we are improving, and whether it is a 10% growth rate or a growth rate of 50%. So we have to monitor it properly,” Chaubey was reported to have said.
What rate of improvement the AIFF and Kalyan Chaubey in particular are expecting, needs to be seen, because going to play knock-out stages of a tournament in a foreign country will not improve the standard of a football player’s game or increase the football fan base in India. At best, it will alienate the fans.
Goa has four top-notch football fields. Bengaluru, Kerala,the North-Eastern states, etc, have world-class football pitches. World football has been coming to Goa for the last many years. And now India wants to have its matches outside the country. Better football infrastructure cannot be one of the reasons why the AIFF wants to take the Santosh Trophy to Saudi Arabia.
Maybe it is because of the money involved. They may be able to market the game better in Saudi Arabia, but it does not mean that India should not take another shot at marketing. By taking our premier tournament out of the country, the AIFF will hurt the fan, the player and the game in the long run.