Kerala emerged winners in the Santosh Trophy National Football Championship at Manjeri on Monday night after a pulsating shootout win over heavyweights West Bengal. The team led by Jijo Joseph and coached by Bino George played an attractive brand of football to win the title on home soil after a long gap of 29 years. The hosts showed tremendous fighting spirit to come back after conceding a goal early in the extra time in the summit clash.
It was the perfect end to Kerala’s campaign, which began with a 5-0 thrashing of Rajasthan. Kerala had scored a 2-0 win over Bengal in the group stage before being held to a 2-2 draw by Meghalaya. A 2-1 win over Punjab sealed their place in the semifinals as group toppers.
Kerala steamrollered Karnataka 7-3 in the semifinals, with T K Jesin running riot. The striker pumped in five goals after coming on as a substitute with Kerala trailing 0-1.
Kerala were the favourites going into the final, but Bengal were worthy opponents. The hosts, egged on by a full house, were kept at bay by Priyant Kumar Singh who was quite brilliant under the Bengal bar. Muhammed Safnad's late equaliser shifted the momentum in Kerala's favour and they held their nerve in the shootout.
The victory, seventh overall in the tournament, also meant Kerala have made it 2-2 in head-to-head record against Bengal in the finals. The triumph was a fitting tribute to B Devanand, a member of Kerala's maiden Santosh Trophy-winning squad in 1973, who passed away in Kochi last week.
Barring Jijo and goalkeeper V Midhun, the Kerala team consisted of youngsters mostly. The tournament was a perfect opportunity for them to showcase their skills and they grabbed the chance gleefully. Bino, who is no stranger to the Santosh Trophy, needs to be applauded for sticking with the young players. Jijo also deserves praise for leading the team from the front. The midfielder, who missed the South Zone qualifiers with a groin injury, started off with a hat-trick in the opener against Rajasthan and netted a brace in the crucial tie against Punjab.
Kerala's brilliant run in the tournament has caught the attention of the Indian football fraternity and players like Jijo, Jesin, Ajay Alex, and P N Noufal, are well on the radar of top Indian Super League sides.
The tournament proved to be a great success on the organisational front as well with almost all the matches being played in front of packed stadiums both at Manjeri and at Malappuram. However, the All India Football Federation needs to have a serious look at the cramped schedule with most of the teams being forced to play on alternate days.