Ever since the introduction of the pan-India club-based league in 1996-97, all efforts have been made to undermine the importance of the Santosh Trophy. It has regularly been claimed, by many football experts in India, many of who are well-versed with European football, that clubs are the backbone of football development; it should be encouraged at all cost.
The Santosh Trophy is based on old ideas, the sooner it is discarded the better. During the pandemic, the Indian Super League (ISL) was organized with great success. Not far behind was the I-League, which also was staged by the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) with all seriousness. But the Santosh Trophy was put on hold, the last time it was held was in the 2018-19 season in Ludhiana.
The Santosh Trophy is played with lot of restrictions these days. No State can include players from ISL or I-League to strengthen their sides. Things have come to a pass where the 32-time champions Bengal had, for the first time in their history, included a footballer who had never played the Kolkata League. Established footballers barred from playing, denied a proper schedule in the calendar, television coverage ignored by AIFF's official marketing partners, but the strength of the Santosh Trophy is hard to be weakened.
One vividly remembers the scenario when Delhi hosted the tournament in 2004. The home team was a moderate side and was eliminated early. Bengal, surprisingly, crashed out in the first round. The organizers were worried about the attendance. To use a cliché, the rest was history. The clamour for tickets before the Punjab versus Manipur semi-final was unprecedented. Before the Kerala-Punjab final, the Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) officials called for extra police force to prevent gate crashing at the Ambedkar Stadium. IM Vijayan came as a spectator but couldn't find a seat.
He, finally, had to share a chair with a journalist from Goa. But the story lies elsewhere. Kerala lifted the Santosh Trophy beating Punjab in the final. Thousands of Kerala fans celebrated in the stands, prompting a national daily to run a headline: "Super-Sunday of Delhi football." Five days later, the Durand Cup began and on the opening day, a Kerala-based club, with half a dozen players from the Santosh Trophy side, lost 1-3. Not even 200 people were there to cheer them. There is no mystery in this. Barring a few States, the club culture in football has not spread across India in all these years. Instead, it is Santosh Trophy that stretched the imagination of common football fans. Generally, they identify themselves with their respective States, not clubs.
The bosses in Indian football, unfortunately, run the game on borrowed ideas. If the club culture is prevalent in other countries, especially in Europe, it is because the scene is dominated by public clubs with rich history and tradition. Having run them for more 100 years, most of these clubs are parts of local culture. In India, except for a few, all clubs are either franchises or part of corporate houses.
Many years will pass before the franchise can be accepted by fans as their own. Then why destroy a system that automatically helps the game grow people's interest without much effort? In the early part of this century, Goa's Dempo Sports Club were a crack side, who won every domestic tournament including the National Football League (NFL) and the I-League several times. When they won it for the first time in the 2004-05 season on home turf, the spectators' attendance to watch the likes of Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda etc. was not something to talk about. In 2008-09, when Goa landed home with the Santosh Trophy from Chennai, the huge crowd that gathered to greet the boys and take out a procession would have left seasoned politicians green with envy.
Football administrators in India have a bunch of wrong perceptions; they are partly responsible for taking the game away from common fans. Modern football is no more a game alone, it's a business, is an oft-repeated belief. Corporates have to be brought in to run football successfully is yet another jargon used by Indian officials. What they forget is that football is pure passion – the structure will collapse unless people are having their heart in the right place. Business will suffer if the plinth is weak.
Corporates will never feel curious about things in which people have no interest. The crowd that came at the Malappuram stadium daily had only one agenda – they wanted to watch a well-contested game of football and ultimately a victory for the local team. They were not bothered about how modern and expensive were the artificial lights; how many film stars were sitting in the corporate boxes or how good was the television coverage and the language skills of the commentators of international repute. Well, not that these things don't matter. They do, of course. But more important is pure passion for football.
Indian football was coping with artificiality for the past few years; the Santosh Trophy in Malappuram was like a breath of fresh air that cleared the haze to an extent.