Saudi stadium that hosted Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo to stage Santosh Trophy final stage

Step or misstep, the All India Football Federation has made its first major move after the announcement of the ‘Vision 2047’ roadmap. A new set of officials has taken over and taken a domestic interstate tournament to international shores in a bid to rebuild its royalty status. The King Fahd International Stadium, home to a clash between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi just over a month ago, will see two semi-finals, a third-place match and the title clash between four Indian state teams as the final leg of the Santosh Trophy is held in Riyadh.

Players from Services and Punjab flew from Delhi to Mumbai and then took a flight to Riyadh to be welcomed by a ‘Winter in Saudi’ placard at the airport on a day when the temperature was touching 30C. For most, the experience of playing outside India was a first. For some, the tournament’s purpose was exactly as advertised – a chance to get back to where they believed they deserved to be.

When Chennai City FC won the I-League in the 2018/19 season, Karthik Govind Swamy believed he was now established enough to kick on as a footballer and maybe play in the Indian Super League. Now at 28, Swamy plies his trade for Sporting Club, Bengaluru in the Karnataka state league but hopes for the powers that be to watch him in action in Riyadh.

“The Santosh Trophy’s importance is that it gives us the opportunity to get back to the I-League and ISL. The main thing is to get a job and the Santosh trophy allows us the chance to maybe get one,” Swamy said after a press conference. The competition is frequented by a combination of university players and older footballers who have drifted through the system.

The effort to rebrand the tournament by hosting it in Saudi Arabia is based on exposure – a word that has been used often when questions have arisen on why the tournament, that saw 26,000 fans in Malappuram turn up to watch Kerala take on Bengal just last year, is being held outside India. It is argued that there are talented players who get left behind because the opportunities to showcase their ability no longer exist.

The fall of state football

It would not be unfair to say that the Santosh Trophy has been an enemy to club-based leagues in India. Teams who have signed players with money rarely like the idea of watching them turn out for their states and possibly get injured. The rise of club football actively brought the importance of the Santosh Trophy plummeting down. Then when the Indian Super League and I-League players were barred from playing in the tournament, the objective of providing more games to India’s best got lost.

By hosting the semi-finals and final of the tournament in Riyadh, the AIFF believes it can raise the value of their competition, allow state associations to work harder to scout for a better crop of players and show that there is a quality footballer or two out there for the top clubs in India to pick up.

“It was always important to win a championship like the Santosh Trophy. Just the news that matches would be held in Riyadh gave us a boost during our qualification matches and increased our concentration levels,” said Services head coach MG Ramachandran on the effect he saw on his players as soon as it was announced that the tournament finale would be held in Saudi Arabia.

Questions remain

Despite the surface intentions of hosting the trophy outside India, doubts linger. There are no tangible signs that a state player may be good enough to play at the level of the top league in India or its second division. And even if that is the case, the motivation to improve their lives and consistently play better football should come regardless of the geographical location of where they play.

Recently, the AIFF backed out of a bid for the 2027 Asian Cup citing the cost of holding a tournament of that magnitude. The decision was based on sound logic as India has only recently reached a stage of their development where they are starting to qualify regularly for Asia’s biggest international tournament. The next four days will showcase four games of the Santosh Trophy on foreign soil. And as has been the case with many AIFF decisions lately, the true results of this experiment will only show much later.

(The writer is in Riyadh on the invitation of AIFF)

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