Riyadh: Former champions Services and Punjab will start as favourites to enter the summit clash of the Santosh Trophy national football championships as they face their respective opponents in the semifinals here Wednesday.
Taken to the foreign shores for the first time in its eight-decade-long history, the tournament’s semifinals, final as well as the third-place playoff will be played at the King Fahd International Stadium, where superstar footballers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were in action in an exhibition match in January.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) feels that the profile of the legacy tournament will improve as it gets an international platform by staging its final four matches in Saudi Arabia.
It said the kind of facilities the Saudi Arabian Football Federation will provide in terms of the playing venue and accommodation can revive the charm of the tournament among the Indian players.
Once graced by the best players of the country, ranging from Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, the tournament no longer boasts of star footballers.
Not a single player from the current I-League and Indian Super League first team has participated in the tournament in the last 10 years.
But the event, which is in its 76th edition, can still be the stepping stone for players to reach the top-two tier leagues of the Indian domestic structure, and from there they can make the national team. This was what national team head coach Igor Stimac had said.
Services are the most successful team in the last 10 years as they have won five titles in this period and they would look to be in their 12th final. Their semifinal opponents Karnataka have not won the title since 1968-69 when they — as Mysore side — beat Bengal in the final for their fourth title.
Punjab, the second most successful state overall with eight titles, will be up against Meghalaya, who are in their maiden semifinals.
Punjab have not won the title for 15 years as their last triumph was in 2007-08 season and they would look to end the long drought. They have, however, finished runners-up in 2014-15 and 2018-19, losing to Services in both the finals.
“We want to go back home with the trophy, that is for sure. But every team is at the same level and I respect all teams. The team which commits less mistakes will win,” Punjab coach Harjinder said at the pre-match press conference.
Punjab have come to Saudi Arabia without a few players who played in the second round in Bhubaneswar due to various reasons, including forwards Rohit Sheikh and Dipu Kala.
“Most of the players are young and they are beginners, so whoever comes in place of these players, I hope they will grab their chances and do well,” said Harjinder.
“There were some disturbances in our preparations as many of my players are university students and they had inter-university competitions.”
Meghalaya coach Khlain Syiemlieh said his players are motivated to give their best in their maiden semifinals and lift the trophy for the first time.
“Punjab are a strong side, they have a history in the Santosh Trophy. But we have also prepared very well,” he said.
“We have a different plan against Punjab and we are hoping to have a positive result tomorrow.”
Services coach M G Ramachandran said his side will play with a ‘do-or-die’ mentality in their bid to lift the trophy for the seventh time overall.
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) is hoping for a good turnout on Wednesday. The SAFF officials have sought help from the Indian embassy to spread the news of Santosh Trophy being played here.
They are expecting students from a few Indian schools to turn up to watch the matches.
“We are expecting a good crowd tomorrow, not only the Indians but also Saudi football fans here. We have spread the news through social media and also have approached the Indian embassy,” an official of the SAFF said.
The SAFF is also selling online tickets for the matches with prices at SAR (Saudi Arabian Riyal) 5, SAR 10, SAR 150 and SAR 300 — Rs 110, Rs 220, Rs 3304 and Rs 6608 (approx) respectively.
It has sought to create a buzz around the tournament on its social media handles with video posts of earlier matches in India and photos of Indian players landing here, with captions in Hindi.