Kerala side training ahead of Santosh Tophy match | Photo: Latheesh Poovathur/ Mathrubhumi (Photo: Kerala side training ahead of Santosh Tophy match | Photo: Latheesh Poovathur/ Mathrubhumi)
A news item published recently must have been a source of delight for football fans in Karnataka in particular and also raised fond hopes for other followers in the country. It was about the decision of the Karnataka State Football Association to revive the once popular event of national interest, the Stafford Challenge Cup football tournament, after a three-decade hiatus. For the many lovers of Indian football, this must have set them on a path down memory lane of those bygone days when football in India was so much about national-level tournaments across the country.
The clubs vying for supremacy, foreign participation, players getting elevated to national heroes and generally the mammoth response that resembled a football mela… Well, there was so much more in the end, and what mattered was that the popularity of Indian football was kept high, the visibility of the footballers was pronounced, and generally, the heroes then went around with a sense of pride. It is a different matter that when it came to international competitions, there was not much to say, but can the blame be put on the players alone?! But that is another story. India’s best days in football have always been the 50s and 60s when the country was recognised as a powerhouse in Asia. Perhaps in the 70s, the slip began, but that did not stop the fans from lauding their favourite footballers whenever they achieved big in the national tournaments.
Remember, I M. Vijayan, Pappachan, Sathyan, Bhaichung Bhutia and many more of that ilk. There was always an eager wait for the football season those days. In Kerala, particularly sports administrators would admit there was nothing to match the response that a football tournament brings about. The top clubs in the country in those days would look forward to the outings in the state for the sheer following that the fans have and that only grew season by season. The Chakkola trophy in Thrissur, the Mamman Mappila cup in Kottayam, G.V. Raja Trophy in Thiruvananthapuram, Sait Nagjee in Kozhikode and Sree Narayana Guru in Kannur were some of the important football stops in the state! Someone like the late P.K. Banerjee probably received greater adulation as a Coach for the Bengal glamour clubs than as a class player he was because that was how the settings had changed. Why Banerjee, it is said, even went to the extent of learning a few Malayalam words and would never fail to come out with them when in Kerala!
Then came the nineties, and the talk of the national league had gone shriller. The world body FIFA and the Asian Football Federation (AFC) were keen that India should seriously think of launching a national professional league to develop the sport on healthy lines as it had in other countries, including Asia. An AFC-inspired workshop conducted in New Delhi around this time brought a Japanese delegate, among others, to the capital to narrate how the J-league was beginning to change the football scenario in that country. This was expected to inspire Indian authorities as they prepared for an eventual I-league in India. Japan’s progress has been nothing short of phenomenal, with a World cup debut in 1998 and almost a regular in this quadrennial event from there on. We all had seen what Japan could do in the latest edition in Doha when it extracted wins over Germany and Spain as it ended its campaign in the round of 16. The Doha world cup was a revelation as far as Japan’s capability was concerned. There was a reason then to believe that the national league could raise the country’s football stock. It could have been a moot point if India has many strides since.
So India too joined the bandwagon. The national league came and before long a cash-rich Indian Super League was brought in. Both continue even as tournaments that used to provide the true test of the popularity of the sport and players began vanishing! The lack of sponsors was heard as one reason. Yet can an event like Sait Nagjee that can stun any onlooker for the sheer surge of football fans to the Kozhikode Corporation stadium, slipping away into history seem justified? No footballer of the eighties and nineties who had had the experience of performing in front of the overflowing stands would ever forget the experience they had gone through. For they are never forgotten face from then on. Stalwart goalkeeper Brahmanand recollected how in 2013 when he had come unannounced to the Kochi stadium for the Santosh trophy final was recognised by the football fans even as he seemed lost in the crowd. That touched him. Tournaments built up a player and gave him status and popularity as he rose to serve the country.
It is here that AIFF’s thinking, or so it is heard, to work out a way to restart some of the well-known tournaments of yesteryear had to be welcomed. Stafford Challenge Cup will be the first one to be seen. And the hope is at least a few others will follow. As one organiser in Kerala put it sometime back, only tournaments held on a regular basis could raise the standards of the sport in the State. That should hold true for other States too. The desi touch, as they say, does add an unmistakable sheen to the sport. Good tournaments can bring up good players. For sure, the national body should be able to find proper windows in the annual calendar to accommodate such popular events. At times going back to old ways can be useful. It perhaps will for Indian football to gain strength.