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.
Punjab 1 (Parmjit Singh 16’)
Meghalaya 2 (Figo Syndai 37’, Sheen Sohktung 91’)
AIFF Media Team
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: It was a historic match for Indian football, and it ended with a fitting goal. Sheen Sohktung’s 91st minute strike added a page to the glorious history of Meghalaya as well. They came from behind to beat eight-time champions Punjab 2-1 and advanced to the final of Hero Santosh Trophy for the first time, at King Fahd International Stadium here on Wednesday.
On a pitch where Cristiano Ronaldo scores his goals these days, Sheen shattered Punjab’s hopes at the start of stoppage time with a goal that would have made even the Portuguese legend happy. Getting the ball from strike partner Donald Diengdoh just outside the box, Sheen shot it like a bullet between two defenders and swung it past the diving Punjab goalie Shamsher Singh into the goal. It was a telling blow to Punjab, who, along with everyone present at the stadium were preparing themselves for the extra time.
The Punjab lads sank to their knees when the final whistle was blown but they were by no means the inferior side on the day. Manager Harjinder Singh could be as proud of his boys as his counterpart Khlain Syiemlieh is. This match was not just a simple semi-final for the National Championships. It was also the first time Indian football was showcasing its domestic talent pool in a country far ahead in terms of football infrastructure and international success. Both teams justified the faith shown by the All India Football Federation in flying them to Saudi Arabia and giving them perhaps the best pitch available in Asia to showcase their skills.
It was a tight and exciting game from start to finish. While the Meghalaya boys relied on a swift passing game, Punjab used their generally bigger physique to good advantage and stressed on counter-attacks. Nobody gave an inch away to the others and Punjab drew first blood in the 16th minute.
They capitalised on a small error by Meghalaya custodian Rajat Paul Lyngdoh. In dealing with Bhupinder Singh’s corner from the left flank, he fisted it out but not forcefully. It went to an area outside the box where none of his teammates were present. However, it was not an easy angle for Parmjit Singh, who unleashed a right-footed grounder towards the far post to make it 1-0.
Meghalaya did look a bit stunned by that goal because they had the upper-hand in the first few minutes of the encounter. They had kept Shamsher busy right from the second minute, when Donald’s through pass was almost deflected into his own goal by a Punjab defender. Shamsher dived to his left to avert the disaster.
Meghalaya could have still taken the lead in the sixth minute when Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh’s long-ranger was heading into the net. Shamsher had to throw himself in the air to get a hand. It still shook the crossbar before going out for a corner.
Punjab got their first chance in the very next minute. Jang Bahadur Singh got a cross from the right and though there was nobody to mark him, he could not find the mark with his header. However, even after making it 1-0, the former champions could not make the contest one-sided. Meghalaya stayed defensively solid and creative on the attack.
The equaliser finally came in the 37th minute. It was a brilliant execution of a set piece. Allen Lyngdoh, who played a stellar role right through the match, delivered a measured free-kick from the right wing towards the Punjab goal. Dawanchwa Carlos Challam headed it on to the other post. It seemed Figo Syndai had been stationed there for that moment, so calm was his demeanour in volleying it in with the left foot.
It was Punjab’s turn to freeze for a few seconds but they recovered quickly. Otherwise, Meghalaya would have taken the lead in first-half stoppage time itself. Sheen crossed from the left to the far post, which was headed on to the near post. But Gurtej Singh got his body in the way to thwart Donald from heading it into the goal.
Meghalaya custodian Rajat may have been guilty of giving Punjab the scope to go ahead in the first half, but he was like a rock in the second. He saved Kamaldeep Singh’s grounder from inside the box diving to his right. Five minutes later, Jang Bahadur got into the box from the left playing a wall pass with Kamaldeep and shot with his right foot. Rajat kept it out from point blank.
It was clear that every Meghalaya player was hell-bent on displaying a memorable performance on a memorable day for Indian football.