Santosh Trophy: Meghalaya and Brolington Warlaph hope for a happy ending

At 34, Brolington Warlaph captained Meghalaya into the final of the Santosh Trophy – in the first ever domestic Indian football game to be held outside the country in Riyadh. For most, Meghalaya’s meteoric rise to the top of Indian state football came as a surprise, considering the fact that the state, which provides many top quality footballers to the country, has never ever won a Santosh Trophy. To Brolington though, this was one last opportunity to finally get this monkey off his back.

The attacker has spent the past ten years intent on winning the Santosh Trophy and has come out empty handed every single time. This time though, as soon as the team realised that a trip to Riyadh was on the cards, Brolington told his teammates that this edition would have to be the one were they end their drought as he plans to retire if they end up winning the Santosh Trophy.

A supervisor at the Neigrihms hospital in Shillong, the 34-year-old regularly practiced in the morning before heading to the hospital. Being a part of the state team helped as well as he got a 30-day leave at times to play football, as a provision.

Finding ways to play the game has been part of Brolington’s life. Initially, it was his parents who would ask him to focus on studies rather than play football in their village. But eventually, he figured out a way.

“We used to play football at our village in our childhood. My parents didn’t want me to play football and wanted me to focus on studies. I did that until my metrics, and then moved to Shillong. At Least there, they could not say anything about me playing.”

Sense of belief

A look at the Indian Super League landscape over the past decade reveals many of Meghalaya’s finest playing for different clubs. The state has also given a platform to players through clubs like Shillong Lajong FC and Royal Wahingdoh FC, who played in the I-League in recent years.

But according to former Indian national Eugeneson Lyngdoh, one of the greatest midfielders produced in the country, it’s the Shillong Premier League that starts off the manufacturing process of some of India’s best.

“If you look at players in the ISL, most of them have played in the Shillong Premier League. Football in Shillong has always been at a high level. But when it comes to state team performances, they’ve never really achieved anything yet.”

And when asked what’s changed now, Lyngdoh said that it was the belief that this team had in their own selves that changed the way they played.

“The thing is that now there is a sense of belief among the players, especially within the state. Before this, we had talent, but we didn’t have that sense of belief within. But now when you look at the players, you see that there’s a lot of belief, and they are a confident bunch,” said Lyngdoh.

It also helped that the most of the teams to reach this stage have likely benefited from the change in format as to how the Santosh Trophy is played. The new format has seen teams that have reached the final stage get at least 10 games through the group stages and the second round.

Lyngdoh said, “Before you would play one group match with four other teams and you’d be out. Now, it happens like a league. Better teams keep getting better and the momentum grows as the tournament goes on. It no longer is a cut-short tournament that is happening for the sake of happening.”

Final port of call

Meghalaya beat a Punjab side that was missing four key players 2-1. While on paper the result seemed like a very close contest, and a last-minute goal helped Meghalaya to make the final, there were moments in the match where the team from India’s northeast showed why they have superior game sense.
Despite being surrounded by Punjab players on numerous occasions, they would find ways to either pass, or shift their bodies in ways that would give them an opportunity to control possession, slow the pace of the game to their own liking and launch attacks.

Meghalaya now face Karnatka in the final of the Santosh Trophy at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. Against Karnataka, they play a team that operates on similar lines, and maybe even a tad bit better. But if anything, this Meghalaya team — especially its captain playing his last game — has waited for a long time for this moment. A fitting retirement for a long-time player from the state might be on the cards.

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

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