RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: The prestigious trophy named after Maharaja Santosh, that has been coveted by Indian Football’s finest for decades, and has traversed the length and breadth of the country, now finds itself in the unlikeliest of locations – Riyadh Saudi Arabia.
As the sun sets on the eve of the Hero Santosh Trophy, the four sides – Punjab, Meghalaya, Services and Karnataka – prepare for the last hurrah with the Arabian desert in the background. Punjab take on Meghalaya in the first semi-final at the King Fahd International Stadium at 5.30 pm IST, while Services take on Karnataka in the second semi-final at 9 pm IST at the same venue.
As all four coaches thanked the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) for taking the pioneering step of hosting the business end of the Hero Santosh Trophy in Saudi Arabia, the battle lines were drawn across the sand in Riyadh.
Punjab take on newbies Meghalaya
The first semi-final will see eight-time champions Punjab take on Meghalaya, who are making their first appearance in the last four.
Punjab head coach Harjinder Singh, himself a former India International, sounded confident, yet cautious ahead of his side’s clash.
“If I analiyse Indian Football, I would have to give equal rating to the state teams. I think all the four teams that have qualified for the semi-finals have been lucky to have got here, because the competition in the First Round and the the Final Round was fierce,” said Harjinder. “I feel that our team has made less mistakes and have put in a great effort to get here. We have a lot of respect for our opponents, but we will play to win.”
Punjab captain Rajat Kumar expressed his desire to put out a good showing in the Hero Santosh Trophy and use it as a steppingstone to become a pro and play for India one day.
“We have played really well in all the stages, and the full credit for that goes to our coaches. We’ve had the advantage of having long camps, and I’m sure we will do well in Riyadh as well,” said Rajat. “It’s great to be here, and we all want to do well so that we get the opportunity to become pros, and maybe even play for India one day.”
Meghalaya head coach Khlain Syiemlieh was all praises for his opponents on the eve of their match.
“Punjab are a very good team. They have put in some exemplary performances in the Group Stage and the Final Rounds. They are one of the most successful teams in the history of the competition, so we have a lot of respect for them,” said Khlain.
“We have of course analysed their game thoroughly and have plans on how to tackle them. I am hopeful for a positive result,” he said.
Meghalaya captain Fullmoon Mukhin invoked the spirit of the national animal for his boys, saying that they need to play with big hearts.
“We are all thankful to God for giving us this opportunity. It was a big challenge for us to get this far, and it will be an even bigger challenge in the next two matches,” he said. “Once we enter the ground, we should all be like tigers at heart. We need to be brave when we face our opponents, and play our game.”
Services, Karnataka eager to bring home Hero Santosh Trophy
The second semi-final will see six-time champions Services take on four-time champions Karnataka (the team was known as Mysore when they won the four championships).
Services, who last won the Hero Santosh Trophy in 2018-19, have been in camp since January, believe that their fighting spirit will take them through to the seventh title.
“We are trained soldiers, who know the importance of the fighting spirit. Our boys never give up, and I feel that is what will lead us to victory,” said Services head coach MG Ramachandran.
“We are lucky to not have any injuries, and the fact that our boys are all trained for the do or die situations will take us a long way,” he said. “We want to bring the trophy back to India.”
Services captain Bhabindra Malla Thakuri credited the coaches for the team’s entry into the semi-finals, and believes that their strategies are an advantage for the team.
“The preparations have been good so far, maybe even better than what we’ve thought so far. The morale is high among the boys, and I feel that if we play as per the strategies of the coach, we could go a long way,” said Thakuri.
For Karnataka, it has been almost 53 years since they lifted the Hero Santosh Trophy. Perhaps the fact that reflects the amount of water that has flown under countless bridges since then is that the team was named Mysore back then.
Head coach Ravi Babu Raju said, “Karnataka has not won the Santosh Trophy in such a long time, but we feel that this is our year. We can win this,” he said. “Having said that, we have full respect for Services. They are a very good team, and we do not underestimate them. But our team also has a lot of quality, and I am sure we will be able to do well.”
Captain Karthik Govind Swamy lauded the Karnataka State Football Association (KSFA) for taking good care of the team.
“We have prepared very well, and I would like to thank the KSFA for taking good care of us. We are prepared to give everything on the ground, and the focus is on bringing the trophy to Karnataka. We are not here for a trip, we are here to win,” he said.
The Hero Santosh Trophy matches in Saudi Arabia will be streamed live on DD Sports and the FanCode platforms.