Spreading the beautiful game across different states is one of the key objectives in Vision 2047, and the Federation has begun that process by taking the Hero Santosh Trophy to newer heights. The Hero Santosh Trophy is now on a revival path, with the tournament's semi-finals and final set to be hosted abroad for the first time – in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The-aiff.com is in Riyadh, and will be following the progress of the four semi-finalists and other events around the Hero Santosh Trophy closely in a series of stories.
AIFF Media Team
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: The finish line is almost in sight. The Hero Santosh Trophy’s Grand Finale will see Karnataka cross swords with Meghalaya at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday, March 4, 2023.
While the competition itself has come to newer horizons, with the semi-finals, third place match and the final being held overseas for the first time, the two teams in the summit clash are also in somewhat unfamiliar territories; Karnataka are in the final for the first time since the 1975-76 season, and Meghalaya will make their maiden appearance in the summit clash.
Speaking media on the eve of the match, Karnataka head coach Ravi Babu Raju hailed the new format of the competition, that has been introduced as part of the Federation management’s vision, which was launched earlier this year.
"This new format has been very good for us, for every team and the players in fact," Karnataka coach Ravi Babu Raju says. "The sheer number of games means we can keep evolving our tactics, seek improvements, and ensure performances get better. Our players have had the chance to improve their game.”
Asked about the upcoming match against Meghalaya, Raju emphasised on the speed of attack for his side to prise open the opposition defence.
“The message we have constantly been forcing on the boys is that the job isn't done yet. We have to finish the job and get the trophy. It's essential to not lose that focus at all,” said Raju. “We have observed that the Meghalaya defence is susceptible when hit at speed. We will hope to hit them on the counter.”
Scenes of joy erupted after Karnataka defeated Services 3-1 in the semi-final to book their spot in the final. However, captain Karthik Govind Swamy was quick to convey that the senior members of the squad have ensured that all the players focus on the final instead.
“There was an initial burst of joy, but it was after that evening that we as a team sat and spoken to each other. The senior players have taken the lead to let everyone know that it's important to stay focussed on going home with the trophy,” said Karthik.
Meghalaya head coach Khlain Syiemlieh took pride in the heart that his boys have shown throughout the Hero Santosh Trophy. Indeed, there have been many an occasion when they found themselves on the back foot, but the boys from the Garo and Khasi hills have always fought their way back.
“Right from the group stages, our team has been making comebacks constantly. We were down 1-2 against Odisha in the group stage and if we lost we would not even have qualified. Then we were losing to West Bengal, and then to Punjab. So one way to look at it is that the boys have a lot of heart and know how to battle adversity,” said Syiemlieh.
“We know that Karnataka are good on the ball and have a lot of talented players who are playing in clubs and in ISL reserve sides. But we are undaunted. The boys know the gameplan and will stick to it,” he said.
The Meghalaya head coach also thanked the fans and urged them to keep supporting the team in the final.
“Our phones have been flooded with congratulatory messages. Even on social media, there has been an outpouring of love from fans in Shillong,” he said. “Everyone is excited. It gives us a lot of heart that they are supporting us from afar. It's a moment of pride for us, and we want to take this trophy back to Shillong.”
While the long tournament has meant Karnataka's solid team unit has gelled and become a better one, for Meghalaya it has offered old war horses a chance to shine. Brolington Warlapih only joined the team for the Final Round, missing out on the Group Stage because he wanted to spend time with his family during Christmas.
The 34-year-old has been turning out in the state team's colours for almost a decade, and was included in the fold with the intent of ensuring the young team had a mature spine. "This is the last dance, for sure," he says. "I will retire after this and I want to do so on a high, by bringing our state this long deserved glory."
There is similarity and also strong contrast in these two teams. Karnataka hold the head to head edge (having won both previous encounters), and enjoy keeping the ball and shifting flanks. Meghalaya do so too, but rather than crossing it from the wings, prefer to make inroads through the middle in the final third. Karnataka's players all come through the academies of the state's new modern clubs, and are from all across India while Meghalaya are boosted by the pure strength of their domestic talent. It is a great amalgamation of how diverse the game is and how Vision 2047's approach can be fulfilled in two completely different ways — by boosting local participation and inviting stronger club structures.
For those at the Golden Tulip, though, the long term gains are of tertiary concern – once the match kicks off at the King Fahd Stadium at 9 pm IST, and the Indian Football fans tune in on Doordarshan Sports or FanCode platforms, all that will matter to the teams and the fans alike is who wins the trophy and etch their names in the annals of Indian Football history.