This is a match better recollected in tranquility, more than a week after it had occurred, having hardly got any notice at the time of its telecast. The inter-state football tournament – the Santosh Trophy – concluded at the once-impressive 30,000-capacity Barabati stadium in Cuttack. It was telecast by Doordarshan Sports live at the civilized hour of 6 pm. The final was played between Services and Tamil Nadu who, between them, did not have a particularly distinguished record. This was Tamil Nadu’s maiden entry into the final, while the Services had figured in it twice before, having won it once.
Those are the bare facts, for the record. Most newspapers covered the event sparingly and only a Chennai daily dutifully gave a double column picture and a matter-of-fact report of the proceedings. One should be eternally grateful for these small mercies.
The Santosh Trophy final came after a month’s worth of frenzied football across the world culminated, with the EPL concluding on a dramatic wire finish. One had seen the crowds at Amsterdam and Madrid, Munich and Marseilles and Ankara dancing and lighting flares. Then there was a lull between that and the beginning of the ‘friendlies’ between the European contenders. It was to fill up this gap, it seemed, that the Santosh matches had, thoughtfully, been conducted.
The earlier knock-out stages were hardly covered by the media, which focused instead on the IPL’s nail-biting finishes and celebrity endorsements and glamour. The sports pages were full of reports on matches happening simultaneously at four centres – the logistics, the specifics, the works.
But I am digressing, just like the TV camera at the Santosh final. When the telecast began, with experts chatting in two languages, one could not get the hang of anything. The stadium seemed bare, the pitch seemed grassless and the centre circle looked as if Bishen Singh Bedi and Jai Bhagwan Goel had dug up the pitch on the rumor that the Pakistanis were going to play cricket.
The teams trooped in and the referee, smaller than most players, was in a maroon shirt and mop hair. He tossed the coin and picked it up from the mud pit and the proceedings began. The commentators kept up a jabber, repeating ad nauseum that the teams should be setting a record either way, despite the fact that Tamil Nadu had already won the event before. For the Services it had been a long wait for this final.
The Services team looked fitter and taller and they seemed, to use a hockey coach’s jargon, only 6 kg less in body mass from the continental teams. They were tall and moved with assurance, though still a bit stiff. Their opponents’ body mass was slightly lower at 8 kg perhaps, but they made up for that with tactics. Obviously both teams seem to have been exposed to the EPL and European teams’ strategies. Tamil Nadu had packed the defense, the truck tactic that Mourino has gifted to the world. The Army men had adopted the English tactic of wing play and passing back and back to the goalie and generally looking to the coach for a way out.
The camera sometimes got inspired and caught a player executing a sliding tackle or a reverse kick and for a moment you thought time had stopped. But then it reverted to the somnolent status. It would pan into the empty stands and at the roof where pigeons would be flittering. At the edge of the stadium were huddled a few hundred spectators – maybe one row.
Meanwhile one could see, when the TV cameras permitted, that the Services were attacking relentlessly and being crowded out at the box. A commentator was asking us to watch out for a forward – he didn’t get the name and so we are no wiser – and that player was all over the ground, including the mud pit. The Service players were undaunted by the pit in the middle of the ground, unlike the Tamil Nadu players who seemed to trip and fall and get up all muddied. They were nevertheless able to get the better of their taller rivals. There were hardly any tackles and the amiable Tripura referee managed to control the game expertly, smiling at the players and patting some and being at the right place at the right time.
There was no indication of the time, or any other indicator about the match, really. The screen was bare, the commentary was minimal, and the stands empty, while at the VIP enclosures there was busy replenishing of the glasses and plates. The visitors were being introduced who kept changing their chairs.
The commentator didn’t forget to mention the names of the dignitaries – the Orissa FA chief, the Minister, the IOA state chief, the secretary of the sports ministry – he kept reeling off the names. Some of them were quite tall and dressed impeccably in white, flowing white kurtas, white pants, and white shoes.
A plaque was waved from the touch line and this meant that there was the added injury time of two minutes; this also meant that one had been watching the game for 45 minutes. How time flies. There was a sudden burst of activity and the player whom the commentator had wanted us to keep a watch on spurted, did a one-two with a colleague, and slid in a goal. All of it happened in a split second. That magical moment, however much the DD camera tried to muffle, stuck in the mind. As soon as the goal was scored it was time for the players to troop out.
There were no commercials, no anorexic girls strutting out and holding shampoos and face lotions, no macho men showing their biceps while opening the faucet. No limousines and youngsters at the wheel with spiked hair either. So the commentators had to work overtime in the ten-minute spell, when the dais became animated. The VIPs were waiting for the distraction in the field to clear before the proceedings began. There were rows of curtseying men with bouquets and shawls waiting to present and wrap these around the dignitaries. Names were called out and the ceremonies began. There were mementos to be presented – huge gifts of temple replicas in glass cases that need delicate handling. It was bedlam for the next ten minutes.
By the time the teams had trooped in the confusion had more or less been sorted out, the shawls wrapped and the glassed removed from the tables. Now more refreshments were on the way, and more liveried waiters.
At the mud pit the action began again and one had by then switched to the Ten Sports channel where the UEFA Cup final was being re-telecast; the lush ground, the crowd, the noise, the huge flags that were being waved in the stands. One wondered if it was the same game that was being played in the same decade, even on the same planet. True, the enervating weather in coastal Orissa could not have made anybody move faster, the body mass of the races were different, the techno-savvy of the German machinery cannot be a match for the backward state of Orissa. But still, one couldn’t escape the feeling that a few things could have been done differently.
For one thing, the ground could have been better prepared; a little better turf could have been laid out. Crowds could have been collected – after all, there are scores of young people wanting to watch quality football. And some publicity could have been given to the team – the coaches, their record, the players, their backgrounds and what motivates them to play to empty galleries for a pittance.
Or are we paying heed to passing coaches who want the entire tournament to be scrapped? Traditional tourneys like Durand and Rovers and IFA shield have already been abandoned so as to concentrate on the I League. Isn’t it a pity that a whole generation of young people have grown up watching only EPL or Wolrd Cup without having a clue to what a legacy we had at one time? While Japan and Korea and even the Gulf states have grown by leaps, we do not have even the level of skills or popularity that the game had thirty years ago.
It’s unfortunate to see how much the tournament has regressed in just the last decade. Delhi held the championship in 2004 for the first time since 1944 – a whole generation of Delhiites hadn’t had the pleasure of watching this championship. But during the 2004 matches one found the stadium filled up when Manipur played; when Kerala played, there were eight OB vans parked outside to relay the matches to the distant state. During the Manipir match the stadium reverberated to the drum beats and the strumming of guitars and the parking space was packed with motorcycles. You couldn’t believe you were in Delhi – such was the transformation, and the crowds collected spontaneously.
Though a late starter, the Santosh trophy was not without its high points. It brought to light some amazing players and some remarkable teams. It demonstrated the supremacy of Bengal in the game for a long time. It was an indicator of where the power rested. Punjab burst forth at one time and then the power shifted to Goa and Kerala, the coastal regions with their own style of play and their own attitude to life and the game in general.
The teams of the Deccan plateau, like Bangalore and Hyderabad, blossomed, but then got caught in the flux of the economic boom and shifting of the priorities of the new generation youth who would rather watch the games on wide screen at the pubs and the auditoria of the new glitzy malls and outsourcing centres. The ‘kurkura and chips’ generation had come of age, and they preferred to watch the games on the screen rather than get into the stadia and rub shoulders with the unwashed masses. How is it that this did kind of a transition did not take place in Europe? The same Real Madrid still draws crowds as it did in the sixties and even earlier. Barcelona, Liverpool and Moscow Dynamos still get the young to watch the game.
But I am digressing again. Coming back to the match, in the second half, which, for the record, I didn’t watch, the Services scored a further two goals, and won the match by the score of 3-2. The sequence of goals would tell a different story if only someone had been there and written about it. Services doubled their lead in the 49th minute, by the same player who had scored first – Sanju Saha. They also scored a third goal in the 67th minute. Now any team that had such a huge goal deficit would have buckled down. But not Tamil Nadu. They reduced the margin in the 82nd and 89th minutes, and I’m sure their efforts must have made for pulsating viewing.
According to sketchy reports, there was a 90-minute thunderstorm before the match and the ground conditions were ideal for a fast game.
One could not help imagining. Suppose Doordarshan had used some of the cameras they had acquired during the course of the Asian and Commonwealth games (at least eight of them, if not 32 like the EPL has) and summoned the services of some zestful cameramen (they have some of the best in the business), and suppose they had roped in some articulate commentators with a rudimentary knowledge of the game and some wit, and suppose they had prepared the turf properly and filled the stadium with school children, and suppose they had brought in, along with the snack-chomping VIP office-bearers, some celebrity with an interest in the game. How much of a showpiece they could have turned the event into then?