By Vaibhav Raghunandan
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: In December last year, when Karnataka went down to Delhi in the concluding preliminary Group 1 league match of the 76th National Football Championship for the Hero Santosh Trophy in Delhi, they weren’t sure about making the next stage as there were too many calculations involved in it.
Karnataka 3 (Sunil Kumar 2, Bekley Oram 19, Robin Yadav 42)
Meghalaya 2 (Brolington Warlarpih 19, Sheen Stevenson Sphktung 60)
Yet, on Saturday night, at the King Fahd International Stadium in the Saudi Arabian Capital, Karnataka not only emerged the proud champions with a hard-fought 3-2 win over Meghalaya, but also ended their 54-year wait for the title that remained elusive to them since the 1968-69 Nationals In Bangalore.
But then, it was a different era with different names in those days. The state that won the trophy beating Bengal in the final after two days of intense struggle was Mysore, not Karnataka. The match was played in Bangalore, the garden city, which is now known as Bengaluru.
Since then, the Hero Santosh Trophy could never return to the Karnataka State Football Association’s cupboard, despite the state being one of the major producers of quality footballers in the country. In between, some of the finest names in Indian football, starting from Iliyas Pasha, Rehamatullah, Babu Mani, Carlton Chapman to Shanmugam Venkatesh and many others, served the National Team with distinction, but the coveted trophy for the National Football Championship always travelled elsewhere after every meet.
Not even the staunchest supporters of Karnataka could perhaps ever imagine that the state team would have to travel more than 3,000 kilometres from Bengaluru to bring back the Hero Santosh Trophy after five decades. But it happened like that and watching the final at one of the continent’s finest venues one may have clearly felt the youngsters from Karnataka, on Saturday night, were eager to make sure the trophy doesn’t give them a slip once again.
There were reasons to believe this. Karnataka simply began with a bang, scoring in the second minute when Sunil Kumar’s angular volley from the right was deflected off a defender before finding the corner of the Meghalaya net.
The backlash was sharp and quick. Meghalaya came with a vengeance and in the ninth minute, Sheen Stevenson Sohktung was brought down inside the box and Brolington Warlarpih made no mistake from the resultant spot kick with a strong and confident shot.
Karnataka were not ready to feel bogged down, not this time, at least. In the 19th minute, Sunil Kumar was once again in the thick of things – he passed the ball for Bekey Oram, who tapped it in amidst confusion in the Meghalaya defence. Three minutes before the half time, Robin Yadav, who was later adjudged the Player of the Championship, took a free-kick from around 25 yards that dipped into the Meghalaya goal leaving the custodian Rajat Paul Lyngdoh visibly frustrated.
After a rousing display in the first half, Karnataka defence paid for the momentary lapse 15 minutes after the change of ends. Their defenders would find it hard to explain why Sheen was left unmarked in the box and the Meghalaya striker took full advantage of it to pull one back. It did turn the last half an hour of the game into a more exciting one, but Karnataka thereafter remained cautious despite feeling pressure from the rivals from both wings.
Services comfortable winners of Third Place Match
The battle for third place between Services and Punjab was no cliff-hanger as the former struck once in each half to win the game 2-0. Not that the winners had overwhelming dominance on the outing, but their ability to strike when the opportunities arose, made all the difference.
Shafeel PP put Services in the lead in the seventh minute when his rather innocuous attempt eluded the Punjab custodian Rajat Kumar, much to the frustration of his teammates and the bench. Punjab did make some forays in the rival half, but the second goal at the hour mark broke their resistance. P Christopher Kemei took a long ranger that didn’t have the required sting, but the ball somehow managed to make its way into the Punjab goal.
A few minutes later, the losing team’s custodian took matters rather lightly while trying to clear the ball and only a last-minute clearance by a defender saved the Punjab goal from falling for the third time.
Best Goalkeeper of the Championship: Rajat Paul Lyngdoh
Best Player of the Championship: Robin Yadav. –AIFF report and photographs