New Delhi: Hot on the heels of the International FIFA Friendly between India and Palestine on February 6, 2013, Football has returned to 'God's Own Country' again. This time, for a longer period, and in the form of the prestigious Santosh Trophy, the 67th edition to be precise.
The Qualifying Round of the National Championships did kick-off in Varanasi along with Kerala's Kollam and Kochi, but come February 23, the quarterfinal round would be held only in Kerala, an event which everyone in the State has been waiting for long -- even, IM Vijayan and Joe Paul Ancheri!
"Back in 1999-2000 (Santosh Trophy) in Thrissur, I remember we played Maharashtra and I was then the Captain (of Kerala). We played in front of a packed stadium and the feeling was surreal," said Ancheri. "Playing in front of a full house stays the dream for any player. When I lead the team out of the tunnel, I felt princely," his grin stays evident even over the phone.
"We lost the match 0-1, (Mohammed) Najeeb-bhai scoring the match-winner. But irrespective of the result, the crowd cheered the winners and even the brand of football which Maharashtra played on the day. That's Kerala. They will support you but also appreciate if the visitors play well," he adds.
The last time Kerala hosted the Santosh Trophy was in 2005 in Kochi. IM Vijayan, arguably the Greatest Footballer of his generation echoed Ancheri's feelings. "I need to pinch myself. The Santosh Trophy is back in Kerala!" he opines. "Kerala has a lot to offer to Indian football," he adds.
"I remember Ancheri was the captain in 2000 edition, and we played in front of a full house. It was a great feeling. Then in 2005 (in Kochi), it happened to be my last Santosh Trophy. The response was excellent and the interest level is amazing. It's like the Kolkata Derby when Kerala play here. You'll witness it for yourself if they reach the final. I keep my fingers crossed," he smiled.
The Black Pearl of Indian football went on: "Previously National Team players used to play in the Santosh Trophy. Nowadays the Tournament plays the perfect platform for youngsters as the I-League players don't play. It's the perfect grooming ground," the only footballer to have won the AIFF Player-of-the-Year Award thrice, pronounced.
Ancheri who had won the AIFF Player-of-the-Year twice, in 1994 and 2001 adds: "The state has been starving for top-quality football. You saw the response when India played Palestine. People will come out in numbers for the Santosh Trophy. It is a boon for us."
Defending champions' Services Coach Sajith Kumar, also a Keralite, concluded on a perfect note. "The glamour of the Santosh Trophy is still the same in this part of the country as it was in the 80's. It means a lot to the locals that Santosh Trophy is taking place here."