Santosh Trophy: Kerala hopes to relive 30-year-old achievement by winning for 2nd year running

After winning all five matches of the preliminary stage, Kerala beat Goa 3-2 in its first match in the Group stage.

BySreerag PS | Muhammed Fazil

Published Feb 09, 2023 | 2:05 PM Updated Feb 10, 2023 | 5:42 PM

Glimpses from the Santosh Trophy match between Kerala and Goa.

With its 3-2 win over five-time champions Goa in Bhubaneswar on Friday, 10 February, the chances of Kerala lifting the Santosh Trophy for two years in a row — a feat it last achieved in 1992 and 1993 — have brightened considerably.

In the first match of the Group stage, Kerala, winners last year, opened its account through a penalty by Nijo Gilbert in the first half. Rizwan Ali doubled the lead for Kerala at the start of the second half.

However, a spirited Goa netted two goals later in the second half through a brace by Mohammad Hafeez, making it all square. But a last-minute goal by substitute Asif sealed the game for Kerala.

The Kerala team still have to play Karnataka, Odisha, Punjab and Maharashtra in Group A, with the top two teams heading to the semi-finals to be held this year in Saudi Arabia.

Group B comprises Delhi, Manipur, Meghalaya, Railways, Services and West Bengal.

Kerala literally stormed into the Group stage, winning all five games it played in the Preliminary stage of the tournament — scoring a total of 24 goals, with clean sheets in three matches — raising the hope that it is in fine fettle to repeat it’s 30-year-old feat.

“The team has been playing well and it’s biggest strength has been cohesion. I believe we will retain the Santosh Trophy this season,” KMI Mather, president of the Kerala Football Association (KFA), told South First.

We study our opponents: Assistant coach

The team’s assistant coach KK Hamid, who is at the camp in Bhubaneswar, told South First that maintaining discipline in the “formation and shape of the team” is the key for Kerala.

“The team is playing with good unity, and the team formation and the shape of the team are going well. In all the five matches that we played (in the preliminary stage), we managed to maintain discipline,” said Hamid.

He pointed out that the team has been playing possession-based football. However, they are equipped to change the formation and strategy according to the playing style of the opponent team.

And keeping an eye on the opposition is part of his job.

“All five teams in the final round have shown good qualities, but especially Odisha, Karnataka and Goa. Karnataka has a good coaching staff and Odisha has the home advantage as all the Group stage games will be played in Bhubaneswar,” said Hamid.

‘Home’ advantage in Saudi Arabia?

For the first time ever, the semi-finals, third-place decider and finals of Santosh Trophy will be held outside the country, ostensibly to provide young Indian players with the experience of playing abroad.

The country of choice — Saudi Arabia — has immensely cheered the Kerala team, what with some half a million Malayalis residing there.

According to KK Hamid, if the team qualify for the semi-final, Kerala will be at a great advantage, thanks to the massive expat Malayali population in Saudi Arabia. Football-crazy local Malayalis in Saudi Arabia will turn up in huge numbers to cheer for Kerala, he said.

KFA president Mather lauded the decision by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to hold the semi-final and final matches in Saudi Arabia.

“I believe it is a good decision by AIFF. Players will become familiar with playing in a foreign nation, where the conditions will be different from our country. Also, Saudi Arabia has a good national team and, in future, we hope AIFF will organise exhibition matches as well against the Saudis,” said Mather.

Young guns will do well: Selector

Salim Kutty, former Kerala player and a member of the selection panel for the Santosh Trophy, told South First that he was confident about the team as the selection process had targeted the best, with no special preference given to anyone.

“All the players in the 20-member team, except for three, are inexperienced young players. They have been selected from the inter-district matches and the Kerala Premier League teams,” Kutty said.

“The pool that Kerala is in now is a difficult one. The match against Karnataka is expected to be tough. Even though the players are inexperienced, they will give their all in the game as this tournament is a stepping stone to their future in the top-tier leagues,” Kutty added.

Asked about the exclusion of players who have played in top tier teams in the Santosh Trophy squad, he said: “It is a good decision. The players in the top leagues have already proved their worth; excluding them opens the doors to lesser-known and young talents to prove their worth.”

Santosh Trophy and Kerala

Santosh Trophy — which dates back to 1941 — is the grooming ground for young talent in Indian football. The tournament is organised by the AIFF, and at present 36 teams compete for the silverware.

The Preliminary stage has six groups of six teams each, with the top two from every group going on to make up Group A and B, each with six teams, in the Group stage.

The enthusiasm for football combined with the pride and recognition of representing the state makes it a unique tournament.

Many players who have made it to the national team cut their teeth in the Santosh Trophy. However, since 2009 senior players who play for the national team or in the top tier leagues — I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) — are barred from playing in the tournament.

In October last year, through an agreement signed between the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) and AIFF, it was decided that the final round of the Santosh Trophy — semi-finals, third-place match as well as grand final — will be played in the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


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Kerala’s triumphs at the Tournament

In May 2022, Kerala was crowned the champions of the Santosh Trophy for the seventh time since the first tournament in 1941. Kerala beat 32-time champions West Bengal 5-4 in a penalty shootout in front of a home crowd at the Manjeri stadium in Malappuram.

It took Kerala over 30 years to win its first trophy in the 1973-74 season. However, the win changed the approach of Malayalis towards football, and a public holiday was announced in Kerala following the win by the state team.

The passion for football increased when football World Cups were broadcast on TV in the 1980s.

However, since the 1990s, the odds of Kerala reaching the finals and winning the tournament have increased. The state team consecutively won the tournament in the year 1992 and 1993. It later lifted the trophy in the years 2001, 2004, 2017, and 2022.

In 1993, when the tournament was held in the Maharaja’s College ground in Kochi, a massive crowd turned up for the match and many had to leave without being able to watch the final. It was after this that the government of Kerala built a stadium in Kaloor, named after the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Jawahar Lal Nehru stadium in Kochi currently hosts ISL matches and is the home stadium of the club Kerala Blasters. It had previously hosted the U-17 FIFA World Cup held in India in 2017.

Kerala Santosh Trophy team

Goal Keeper V Midhun from Kannur captains the Kerala Santosh Trophy team in the ongoing edition of the tournament. Midhun, PA Ajmal and TV Alkeshraj have been included in the squad as substitute goalkeepers.

John Paul, Rizwan, Asif and Naresh lead the attacking department.

The players in the midfield are Rishidaath, M Rashid, Gifty C Garcious, Nijo Gilbert, P Ajeesh, Rizwan Ali, Vishak Mohanan and KK Abdhu Raheem. Nijo Gilbert is the joint top scorer of the tournament so far, having scored six goals in the last five matches.

Players in the defensive position are M Manoj, R Shinu, K Ameen, Beljin Bolster, U Mohammed Salim, Sachu Siby, Akhil J Chandran, and J Jeritto.

“The current team is a good one with new faces. Considering the performance of Kerala in the preliminary round, this round may not be much difficult for them. They beat Mizoram, one of the best in the tournament, in the previous round,” Vibin Thomas, who played for Kerala in the last edition of Santosh Trophy, told South First.

PB Ramesh is the head coach of the team and is assisted by Bineesh Kiran, KK Hameed and Mohammed Rafeek.