BHUBANESWAR: Meghalaya created a piece of history in Bhubaneswar on Monday, February 20, 2023, becoming the fourth team to book their place in the semi-finals of the 76th National Football Championship for the Hero Santosh Trophy. The state have never previously progressed to this stage of the tournament and will now vie for the title when the knockouts take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Their dream came true when they beat former champions West Bengal 2-1 in their concluding Group B encounter at the OFA 7th Battalion Ground.
Services have already qualified as the toppers of Group B. The two teams who have qualified from Group A are Punjab and Karnataka. In the semi-finals, Punjab will face Meghalaya, while Services take on Karnataka.
While Meghalaya’s players have created history this time in Odisha, the signs that they were not to be written off may well have come a year ago in Malappuram.
They were the first side in the last edition to not just score against hosts Kerala, but also take points off them in a memorable 2-2 draw. While the coaching staff has changed, many of the players remain the same.
“There is a good mix of boys who have experience playing not just Santosh Trophy but also for clubs outside the state,” head coach Khlain Syiemlieh says. “They have a lot of hunger and desire and I’m very happy for them. They deserve it.”
Despite boasting of some big clubs that have been a part of the Hero I-League (Shillong Lajong, Royal Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United), and Indian internationals of the calibre of Eugenson Lyngdoh and Aiborlang Khongjee, Meghalaya have never truly been regarded as a powerhouse of Northeast football, let alone that of India.
A solitary bronze, won in the National Games in 2007 is the peak of their achievements in the game. Khongjee, in fact, was a part of that bronze winning side and is now the Assistant Coach of the Meghalaya Santosh Trophy team. Ever humble and affable, Khongjee was quick to list this as a much bigger achievement.
“In my time as a player we only qualified for the Santosh Trophy once,” he says. “And the bronze in the Nationals, while a big thing, wasn’t as big as this. This is the Santosh Trophy after all.”
Head Coach Syiemlieh is one of the most reputed footballing minds in the state and has held the top job at Rangdajied and more recently with Ryntih FC. His work at the grassroots and familiarity with a huge number of players within the squad has helped them create shockwaves in Indian Football.
Syiemlieh’s team started the day knowing that just winning against Bengal would not be enough for them — they also needed a favour from Services, who were playing Railways at the Capital Football Arena.
Having previously beaten Indian Football giants Manipur and thrashed Delhi, Meghalaya needed to do the job from their end and pray Railways didn’t.
Bengal were in no mood to succumb easily though, and took the lead via Sougata Hansda in the 36th minute. Meghalaya did not let their heads drop, though, and found their reward at the end of the half, Allen Lyngdoh (44’) and Nikelson Bina (45’+3’) scoring in quick succession to give them the lead.
The second half was played at a slower pace, Meghalaya keen to see the game out without any drama. An injury to Bengal goalkeeper Shubham Roy meant that there would be a lot of added on time, and despite repeated Bengal attempts, an equaliser never arrived. Meghalaya‘s celebrations began on the pitch itself. Syiemlieh and Khongjee were duly tossed in the air, surrounded by players who will hope to shake things up even more in the knockouts.
They will face Punjab in the semi-finals at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, a rematch of last year’s encounter in the group stage (Punjab won 1-0). Services, meanwhile, will face Karnataka in the second semi-final.
Services 4 (Oinam Gautam Singh 32, 49’, Adersh Mattumal 34’, 65’) beat Railways 0
Railways needed a win to qualify from Group B into the knockouts, and facing a Services outfit that had already qualified, they knew they had their task cut out. Teams as fine-tuned and in-form as Services never want to let their level drop and lose momentum.
Throughout the Final Round, Railways have employed a low block defence, that sits back and thwarts and frustrates opponents before nicking the goal that will give them the victory. Against Services, their plan did not change. Services kept knocking throughout the first half an hour, and when the floodgates finally opened, the goals burst through. Gautam Singh and Adersh Mattumal scored a goal in either half to give their team the win and confirm Railways’ exit.
Delhi 2 (Ajay Singh 18’, 45’+1’) beat Manipur 0
Delhi recorded their first victory of the Final Round, beating Manipur in the final game at the Capital Football Arena today. For Manipur, last year’s semi-finalists, it was a humbling end to a campaign that promised much more. Ajay Singh’s first half brace was enough for Delhi to wrap up a comfortable victory.