Rohit Yadav, player of tournament, ends Karnataka’s 54-year wait for Santosh Trophy

Karnataka were Mysore when they had last won the Santosh Trophy. It was the 1968-69 season when they had won their fourth title in Bangalore. At the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, in the first ever domestic game of Indian football to be held outside the country, Rohit Yadav made his mark and scored the winner for his state that helped them end a storied trophy drought and add a fifth title to their cabinet.

Incredibly, the winner, a freekick, was Rohit Yadav’s fourth set-piece goal of the tournament. The Bengaluru FC reserve player was later adjudged as the player of the tournament on Saturday in the Santosh Trophy final. He had a hand in both the final goals scored by Karnataka, but crucially, the lightning quick start that he engineered for his team.

It was moments after the referee had rung the proverbial bell that the southern state launched its first blow. An innocuous throw in by Robin Yadav, flicked deep into the box found M Sunil. The right-back drove a powerful, albeit wide shot, into Rajat Paul Lyngdoh’s goal. The shot careened off a Meghalaya defender and breached its goal. All it took was less than a minute. Karnataka got the start that they’ve been looking for all tournament. Both teams have been quick to concede but have been stitching up a resistance of epic sorts on the road to the finals.

Meghalaya, much like their counterparts, have spent a better chunk of this tournament looking down the barrel of a loaded gun and shrugging off the threat. Against Karnataka, the response came four minutes later.

A mazy run into the box, with shoulder feints being thrown about with aplomb was how Sheen Stevenson introduced himself into the game. And Nikhil G fell for the trap, putting his right foot on the Meghalaya attacker’s path and bringing him down. Brolington Warlarpih, who had promised a quiet retirement to his wife and children if his team would win the Santosh Trophy, rifled the ball into the net 10 minutes in and both teams had hurt each other.

Meghalaya took it one step further – death by a thousand cutbacks was the name of their game. But a goal came at the other end. It was yet another set-piece-ish situation, this time in the 19th minute. Karnataka’s Jacob John floated a cross into the box – one that was met awkwardly by M Sunil, who passed the ball across the length of the Meghalaya backline, and found Bekey Oram, who finished the move.

Twenty minutes had yielded plenty of missed chances, fast starts and three goals. The sparse crowd, more in number than what appeared for the semi-finals, had barely had any time to settle down. Two like-minded identical teams, each pressing for the ball with boundless energy in the middle of the King Fahd International Stadium, each trying to win the Santosh Trophy. And then Karnataka went a step ahead.

Robin Yadav had scored a freekick in the semi-final to help his state through to the finals. The Bengaluru FC man found the net again a minute shy of the first half whistle being blown. A long-range freekick, curled around the Meghalaya wall saw a diving Lyngdoh graze the ball with his fingertips. But the power and the precision that came from the strike was too great a force. Meghalaya, matching Karnataka in energy and process, were suddenly two goals down at the break. Another comeback would have to somehow be engineered.

And miraculously Meghalaya responded 15 minutes into the second half. Banskhemlang Mawlong started the move on the right, shifting his shoulder to the left and taking the ball past into the right flank. He then dropped a cross that whipped through the box, one that seemed to have Donlad Diengoh’s name at the end of it. But Diengdoh let the ball go through and it instead landed at the feet of Stevenson. The player who had earned Meghalaya their first goal of the game, rifled the ball into the keeper’s left corner expertly.

Suddenly Meghalaya were just a goal behind. Their intensity in the midfield rose but both teams had now resorted to a lot more hopeful passes – passes that often failed to find their intended receiver. There were chances too. Karnataka with less than 15 minutes left were in a two-on-one situation that required a pass and not a shot but the move that should have put the game to bed never arrived. The final ten minutes saw Meghalaya push hard for that elusive equaliser.

But the goal never came. A deflected hit that kissed the crossbar before going over was the best chance they got but the referee finally brought an end to the contest. Meghalaya were left dejected on the floor of the stadium while Karnataka ran around celebrating the end of their half-a-century wait for the Santosh Trophy.

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

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