~ Kunwar Deep Singh
As the World Cup finally ended, and most of us were still recovering from the buzzing Vuvuzela noise and all the late nights spent cheering for our favorite teams, the 64th edition of the Santosh trophy kicked off on the 15th of June in Kolkata. Some of the questions lingering in the minds of most ecstatic Bengal supporters were – “will the most successful side in India, with 29 titles to their name , finally be able to break their 11-year trophy drought in this millennium?? With their huge number of football following fans, virtually being a twelfth man on the field for them, will they use the home advantage, playing in their own backyard? Or will we see the other usual suspects Goa, Punjab and Kerala challenging them and win the prestigious event?”
Bengal climbed to the top spot in their group with a magnificent 7-1 win over a helpless Mizoram in the quarter-final league. The hosts were heavily criticized for a lackluster display against the Delhi team, with a late goal restoring parity and ensuring that both teams had to share points. Tamil Nadu, the other team in the group , were replaced by Bengal at the top on goal difference, with both teams having the same number of points . There was no shortage of excitement as the group was wide open, a three way battle for cementing a place in semis. It went down the wire , eventually seeing the hosts and Tamil Nadu going through as Delhi drew their penultimate game against the boys hailing from the North East. The men from Mizoram had already secured a consolation victory over the mighty Kerala.
In the other group , Punjab were on a roll, with Balwant Singh firing all cylinders and their coach Jaagir Singh looking for a third Santosh trophy title in four years. Karnataka , Services and the defending champions Goa were their group rivals. This group didn’t spring many surprises, as normal services resumed with both Punjab and Goa easily qualifying for the semis. The semi final lineup included a huge rematch between last year’s finalists Goa and Bengal, while Tamil Nadu faced Punjab in their second semi final in as many years, after beating the hosts in their final group game.
Bengal came close to sniffing distance last year, till they were undone in a penalty shootout in Chennai and had to settle for the runners-up position while Goa picked up their fifth title. Bengal had assimilated a new side since then, and they had to cross the Goan hurdle enroute to a 30th title, that too in front of the home crowd. Holders Goa began their title defense positively, grabbing a 20th minute lead through Milagres Gonsalves, but Bengal equalised through Robin Singh’s strike in the 83rd minute. In the penalty shootout, Bengal bounced back from 0-2 down and went on to win the tie-breaker 4-3; the goals were scored by captain Snehashish Chakraborty, Souvik Chowdhury, Sheikh Azim and Denson Devadas, who scored the fifth and winning penalty. Bengal had pulled off a spectacular 5-4 (1-1) victory over their last year’s nemesis Goa in dramatic fashion at the flood-lit Yuba Bharati Krirangan, to progress to the 64th Santosh Trophy final, as the home fans went delirious in joy.
In the second semifinal, Balwant Singh struck twice (16th and 56th minute) while Maninder Singh scored in the 35th minute, to oust Tamil Nadu; substitute M Elamurugan scored a consolation goal for the South Indian team in the 90+3rd minute. The comfortable victory for Jaagir Singh’s side saw them face Bengal in the final, which was a rematch of the 2006-2007 summit clash in Gurgaon, where Punjab prevailed beating the Easterners in a penalty shootout.
The Bengal side had to solve the riddle of injuries, as they were missing the injured striking duo of Shankar Oraon and Nilendra Dewan. The final kicked off under flood lights at the historic Salt Lake stadium. Punjab drew first blood, with Balwant Singh finding the net in the 30th minute . Bengal ,who had only Robin Singh as the lone striker up front, had mobilized its hard working midfield so that the two attacking players could aid him; this plan was carried out to perfection and taken ahead by the Kerala lad Denson Devadas , who scored just at the stroke of the break (45+2nd minute) to draw parity. The Chirag United midfielder later sealed the match with a winner in the 78th minute, completing a spectacular comeback for Bengal; he made merry, as he was seeking personal redemption following his controversial sent off during a crucial title-deciding match in the Calcutta league earlier this year. Playing in front of a big holiday crowd of around ten thousand, Bengal notched up an inspired performance to regain the Santosh Trophy for the 30th time.
Denson Devadas goal against Punjab in the final:
The 64th Edition of the Santosh trophy had its share of first time events, from referee Maria Rebello — who became the first female to officiate a national level match between Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, to usage of the FIFA-approved Nivia Radian footballs in the tournament. The tournament has seen some positive changes as testified by the sports minister, M.S Gill, who congratulated Bengal on their emphatic win. Another Santosh Trophy has been done and dusted, and much like the status of Commonwealth Games, it was close. The numbers show that Bengal had edged the men from Punjab. However, if the balance of power continues to shift to the trophy’s new order of trophy-chasers, things could get very interesting.
Bengal team celebrating their 30th Santosh Trophy crown:
That’s it for now. It’s time to look forward to the 2010/11 edition of the I-League.