We have achieved objective of bringing Santosh Trophy to Saudi Arabia: AIFF

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) on Saturday said it has achieved its objective of bringing the Santosh Trophy to Saudi Arabia but made it clear that “it is not necessary” that the domestic tournament will be held here again next year.

The semifinals, third-place match and the final of the national football championships for the Santosh Trophy is being played in Saudi Arabia, a first in the history of the tournament.

The business end of the tournament is being hosted by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) at the King Fahd International Stadium.

“We wanted to present the Santosh Trophy as one of our prestigious and prominent competitions. One objective is to raise that bar. Overall from the AIFF side, we have achieved the objective of bringing the Santosh Trophy to a foreign country,” AIFF secretary general Shaji Prabhakaran said.

“Who had expected that Meghalaya and Karnataka would play in the final. That is good because there is going to be a new champion after so many (54) years.

“It will now be a pressure on us to carry on the same expectations. It is now on us to maintain this level. That is good for us in a way.” Asked if the tournament will continue in Saudi Arabia next season, he said, “Our collaboration with SAFF is not limited to Santosh Trophy, there are many aspects of football in the MoU we signed.

“Bringing Santosh Trophy here is a one-off case, we have to see how we can keep Santosh Trophy relevant. Based on the analysis of this season, we will come back again. It is not necessary that we might have to come back here, but we will do something. There can be several ways to do it.” The secretary general said that the decision to take Santosh Trophy abroad was taken in a “single day” when he and president Kalyan Chaubey travelled to Saudi Arabia to sign a Memorandum of Understanding in October last year.

“It is not that (Saudi Arabia) said they would like to host the Santosh Trophy. During the flight to Saudi Arabia, the president and I were discussing that we have to do something for the Santosh Trophy and we can host it abroad, just as an experiment.

“We thought we could check with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. They agreed and so it happened in a single day. This was not in our plan initially when we went to Dammam to sign the MoU.”

Prabhakaran admitted that the AIFF has made a “huge investment” in the Santosh Trophy and its endeavour is to raise the bar for the championships.

“If we need to tweak anything for the Santosh Trophy in the next edition, we will do so. The teams got 12 matches this year which never happened in the last so many years. Earlier, you play two matches and you lose Rs 7 lakh if you don’t do well in one of them.

“In this format, you can lose one match but can still come back,” he said, referring to the change in format with first and second round matches as well as knock-out rounds abroad.

The AIFF has also brought one member each from all the affiliated state associations for the final match here.

He said the AIFF and SAFF can have matches between the two countries in the age group level — U-17, U-20 and U-23 and the women’s teams.

“Within four years, they (Saudi Arabia) have 36 women teams in the country. Many women players from other countries are playing here.

“Our women players can play in the local leagues here. Not only limited to men, our women players can play here.” Prabhakaran also confirmed that India is expected to lose the AFC Champions League slot from 2024-25 season onwards. Jamshedpur FC and Mumbai City FC, the League Shield Winners of the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons respectively, will face off in a play-off to decide who features in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League.

“In the upcoming season (2023-24), an ISL team is going to play in the AFC Champions League. There was one year gap and both champions (League Shield winners) of the last two seasons will play a play-off match to decide who will play in the AFC Champions League.

“AFC has changed its competitive structure at the top level. If India is not among the top 12 countries in the (Member Association) MA club rankings, the country may not get a slot in the AFC Champions League from next time.” In February last year, it was announced that the AFC Champions League will go back to an inter-year (autumn to spring) schedule starting with the 2023–24 season. Because of this Jamshedpur FC were left with no AFC Champions League top play.

As part of the revamp, the Asian Football Confederation’s marquee AFC Champions League would be cut to 24 teams, instead of the current 40. There will also be three tiers of club competition, instead of the current two.

India is not among the 12 top countries in the MA rankings and it will get two slots in the second tier from 2024-25 season onwards.

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