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 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
NEW DELHI: One of the prime allures of the Hero Santosh Trophy is that it serves as a platform for relatively unknown players to showcase their abilities and secure their future. Youngsters, veterans without club contracts, or even undiscovered gems thrive at the tournament, and often go on to successful careers upon discovery in this event.
For two teams, Railways and Services though, the Santosh Trophy serves a different purpose. Comprised of members in the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy, the Services football team has been one of the most successful in recent years, winning five of the last ten titles (in fact prior to this run, the team had only ever won the Santosh Trophy once, in 1960-61).
For players in the team, the Santosh Trophy offers an opportunity to not just show their talent but also earn themselves promotions in their jobs. Qualifying for the semi-finals automatically guarantees every player a promotion, and with it certain perks- like sanctioned leave to play professional football at the club level.
Bhabindra Malla Thakuri is a second-generation Army man, his father migrated from Nepal to Meghalaya to join in the 1970s. Thakuri grew up in Meghalaya, surrounded by football, and took to the game as an easy pastime after school hours. He joined a local academy in his teens before following in his father’s footsteps and enrolling in the Army.
"It’s always difficult to select the Services team," Thakuri says. "The Armed Forces hire a lot of sportspersons, and footballers in the quota, and so you have to really prove your worth to make it to this very, very diligently selected team."
Many former Services team members who have been on a title winning run have been scouted and signed on by clubs in the I-League as well as the ISL. Thakuri has even seen former Services teammates Suresh Meitei (Roundglass Punjab FC), Novin Gurung and Pintu Mahata (Rajasthan United FC) and Bhaskar Roy (Mumbai City FC) get signed off based on impressive performances in the Hero Santosh Trophy and the Durand Cup. The quartet was also part of the Services team that won bronze at the National Games last year.
"It is a huge source of motivation obviously," Thakuri says. "And it is something that bonds all of us, across the Armed Forces. We are all faujis, so we have that discipline and that ethics, then it’s just a matter of practice and we have prepared well."
Services are one of three semi-finalists boasting an unbeaten record and have conceded the least number of goals of any of them. They have been clinical and efficient, if not always easy on the eye. And yet some players have shined.
"The Services has a long and distinguished history of giving some very good players not just at club level but also for India," head coach MG Ramachandran says. "Of course, that trend has faded of late. Some of our players have been part of the National Camp about a decade back, but it’s getting tougher for them to break into the team.
"The reason for this is that they don’t often get to test themselves against the best in the country in competitions, they don’t have the exposure to attract scouts, and sometimes don’t have that game experience either. But, I believe, if the performances in the Santosh Trophy are anything to go by, we have real quality players. And many have turned eyeballs when they play."
Thakuri, most memorably, was part of an Army Red side that beat Hyderabad FC in the final group stage game of the Durand Cup in Imphal. Army Red won the game 1-0, dependent mostly on Thakuri making save after save from one of Indian Football’s most potent attacking units. Scouts were immediately interested, but strict rules meant that since his team had not reached the knockouts, his leaves would not be sanctioned. His performances and experience have also meant he is the captain of the Services side, an honour not taken lightly.
Now that the Services side has made it to the semi-finals, hope has been rekindled. And yet, it isn’t just the reward of promotion and the freedom to sign for a club that has Thakuri excited.
"We have a lot of young guys in the team," he says. "This is the debut Santosh trophy for many. On the other hand, our backline has won the tournament before, so it’s a great mix. It’s obviously great to be a part of history, and go to play the semi-finals in Riyadh. But we also want to create history and win it there… the first team to do so."