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In Arunachal Pradesh, Santosh Trophy has brought a new dawn to state football

The Santosh Trophy in Arunachal Pradesh came as a breath of fresh air, with people hitting the stadium in large numbers to watch football. They also hope the tournament will boost football in the state which always lagged behind its Northeastern neighbours.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Santosh Trophy has brought a new dawn to state football

Fans watching a Santosh Trophy group stage match at the Golden Jubilee Stadium in Yupia, Arunachal Pradesh. (Photo credit: Parashar Kalita)


Parashar Kalita

Updated: 3 March 2024 12:47 PM GMT

Yupia, Arunachal Pradesh: Arunachal Pradesh exited the 77th Santosh Trophy with a hard-fought 2-2 draw against last year's runner-up Meghalaya.

Yet, the arrival of the Santosh Trophy might be the story of the “new beginning” for Arunachal Pradesh, adorned with majestic landscapes and a name that befits its geographical position - the 'Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains'.

Ajay Kipa, the treasurer of the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), in an interview with The Bridge, said, “When legend Indrajit Namchoom played in the 1960s, there was no Arunachal Pradesh; at that time, we were called NEFA, the North-East Frontier Agency, with headquarters in Guwahati, Assam."

"There were other players from the region who played for the country, such as Surjit Gohain, and many others. The state football association started in 1992. Gradually, you can see the football scenario has been changing in Arunachal Pradesh," he added.

The Santosh Trophy, one of India's oldest football tournaments that started in 1941, took 83 years to reach Arunachal Pradesh.

AIFF treasurer Ajay Kipa

"The tournament coming from Saudi Arabia to Arunachal Pradesh is a big achievement, and when the announcement of the Santosh Trophy in Arunachal Pradesh was made, the environment changed. You can see the scenario, the enthusiasm among fans, among people of Arunachal Pradesh," said Ajay Kipa.

Arunachal Pradesh, however, failed to secure a place in the quarterfinal. It played out draws against Goa and Meghalaya, and lost three games against Kerela, Assam and Services, making a group stage exit.

Despite coming from the Northeastern region of India, a buzzing football hub of the country, Arunachal Pradesh has never really fared well in the Santosh Trophy or regional Dr T Ao Trophy.

But the football scenario has been changing in the state, slowly.

Sports journalist Subodh Malla Barua noted, "In the current scenario, Arunachal Pradesh has a lot of facilities. In the past, players from that region played in Assam and moved forward. Sports infrastructure is developing, and some of the events of the Khelo India University Games were organized there too. The state also played host to the India Sub-Junior Ranking Badminton Tournament last year. I believe many big-level competitions will be held there in the future."

Players like Indrajit Namchoom, Surjit Gohain, and later Gumpe Rime, who played for Mahindra United and Salgaocar as a goalkeeper and is now coaching at the Reliance Foundation, hailed from Arunachal Pradesh. Now, the 19-year-old sensation Gyamar Nikum, who plays for Inter Kashi on loan, is the face of the state in mainstream Indian football.

“Football is changing; the game has evolved from physical to tactical, with the younger generation coming up and the work of the APFA team, professionalism in football has been created. There are talks about signing a MOU with the Northeast United, and I hope that will be completed in the coming days," remarked Ajay Kipa.

However, the state still does not have a proper and stable league as Indrajit Namchoom Arunachal League has been out of order for the last few years.

"The state football tournament, the Indrajit Namchoom Arunachal League, will resume soon. We are eager to help the clubs that want to participate in the I-league or any other tournaments. We are focusing on grassroots football, and when the Santosh Trophy ends, we will start our grassroots programme," he added.

For many fans, the Santosh Trophy served as a family vacation time.

"The atmosphere is very good, and the state association is trying their best. For Arunachal football, the long legacy is not there; they started their association in 1992. The need here is more grassroots work," said Shyam Manik Lodh, the coach of the Arunachal Pradesh Santosh Trophy team.

"The main challenge here is their inferior physical build. But within one and a half months, I am trying my best to improve their football level. Also, the team is not tactically sound. It can be done only if the players were identified at the grassroots level," he added.

Lodh, however, noted that the boys have the potential, "Yes, there is potential; the boys are excellent. People are also enjoying, as you see. Regardless of the results, people have come to the stadium to support their team.

About forming the team, the coach said, “Before I came here, the association invited the best players, approximately 200 from all the districts of the state. And the staff selected the 45 players. When I reached here, I got the 24 boys, who were considered the best."

Satheevan Balan, the coach of Kerala, expressed his surprise with how Arunachal Pradesh organised the Santosh Trophy.

"We thought that the facilities and other conditions would be very poor. But surprisingly, the stadium, the turf, the organisation and the food are outstanding and well-managed. People here are welcoming too. We are very happy about this. The potential of Arunachal players is high, and I believe with more training and platforms, the state will achieve success in football," suggested Balan.

Fans happy

For local fans, it was a festival they did not deserve to miss. Overcoming communication and transportation obstacles, hundreds of fans thronged the Golden Jubilee Stadium in Yupia, about 20km from the state capital Itanagar, to enjoy the game.

Chihi Umbrey, a government employee, postponed his plan to go home. “I wanted to go home, but because of the Santosh Trophy and because my state team was participating, I cancelled the plan. Not just me, but many from the states whose homes are not in the capital had cancelled plans to go outside, and many from other districts and distant locations have come to the capital to witness the tournament," he said, noting the craze around the Santosh Trophy in the state.

Fans hit the Golden Jubilee Outdoor Stadium at Yupia in large numbers.

“There are some geographical problems; you can see we are full of hilly areas, so getting a proper ground is a problem. Still, people came in large numbers," said Rontu Camdir, the chairman of the Modern Soccer League based in Itanagar.

Sandip Kumar, a sports journalist based in Itanagar, said, "There is enthusiasm among the journalists fraternity as well. All the newspapers have given prominent coverage to Santosh Trophy, publishing stories on the front page."

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