The old-timers recall the end of 1973 quite fondly in Kerala. All through December, thousands of football fans from all over the state had thronged the Maharaja’s College stadium in Ernakulam for a glimpse of the action at the Santosh Trophy. Not since the exploits of seven Olympians who represented India at the Summer Games from 1948 to 1960 (Indian football’s golden age) had Malayali players captured the imagination of the state in the way the class of 1973 had.
It is not that they never had the opportunity. The state had already hosted the national tournament four times in previous years but Kerala had never made the final, let alone win. This was no surprise since the domicile rule, under which players could only represent the state in which they were born, was introduced only in 2002. Since its inception in 1941, Bengal dominated the trophy for this reason.
They were already producing some of the best players in the country, but right from the 1930s, good players from other states were making their way to Calcutta to represent the big clubs there. Some of India’s best footballers have represented Bengal over the years despite being born elsewhere. A few found their way to Bombay, where organisations like the Tatas provided them with better opportunities.
This was the case with Kerala as well. All their famed Olympians played outside the state. P.B. Saleh, J. Anthony and T.A. Rahman represented Bengal in the Santosh Trophy. T.M. Varghese, M. Devadas and S.S. Narayanan represented Bombay. O. Chandrasekhar Menon captained Maharashtra to their first win in 1964.
By the time the 1970s came around though, the local scene had picked up. Young players in the state got job opportunities with teams like Premier Tyres, KSRTC, FACT, Titanium and Alind Kundara. These teams provided Kerala with the core of that 1973 squad and word about their exploits spread quickly. As they made their way to the final, the entire state was glued to the radio, having been introduced to the silky skills of K.P. Williams, T.A. Jaffar and M.R. Joseph, among others. And when T.K. Subramanian of Kannur scored his third goal of the game to seal a 3-2 win over Railways in the final, he forever metamorphized into Captain Mani for a grateful population.
The Indian football identity until then was intrinsically linked to regions where British regimental teams and missionaries had established roots during colonial rule. Calcutta, of course, but also Bombay, Mysore, Madras and Hyderabad. Until the 1970s, the Santosh Trophy reinforced this hegemony.
Punjab announced its arrival as a new force by winning the trophy for the first time in 1970, three years before Kerala. In 1982, Goa followed suit. Today, these regions are known as hotbeds of football, but the Santosh Trophy was the arena where they first made people sit up and take notice. For that reason, the tournament holds special significance for these states.
Keralites crave Santosh Trophy wins over any other. M. Peethambaran, the coach who led the state to two titles in 1991 and 1992, once said that even the World Cup was not as important. Manipur and Mizoram have won maiden titles in recent years, and both wins were received with great fanfare in these states.
The profile of the trophy has surely diminished. In it’s heyday, it was the tournament where the national coach picked his sides. Today, it plays second fiddle to the ISL and the I-League. The players from these leagues do not play in the tournament, which essentially means that it is a platform for those in the pipeline. While Stephen Constantine wouldn’t necessarily be watching, those trying to gauge if the grassroots are producing what is necessary for the long term health of the game in the country would do well to pay notice.
West Bengal’s 32 titles in 71 appearances tell a story. So do the 8 wins for Punjab and 5 each for Kerala and Goa. The fortunes of these three states have fluctuated over the decades with the wins punctuating long periods of ordinary performances. Not surprisingly, this can be correlated with the health of the club ecosystems in these states. Unlike the Kolkata biggies, projects do not stay the course. Kerala Police, FC Kochin, JCT Phagwara, Sporting Clube De Goa, the list goes on.
As defending champions, West Bengal, take on Kerala today in the final of the 72nd Santosh Trophy at Kolkata, it could be business as usual for one team. A win for Kerala, however, might signal a revival in the fortunes of a state which has been punching below its weight in recent years. People in the state might not be heady with excitement as they were in 1973 or even 1991-92, but there is nothing like a Santosh Trophy win to shake things up.