| Members of the Manipur team take a victory lap after beating Kerala in the Santosh Trophy final in Imphal on Tuesday. Picture by Eastern Projections
Imphal: This sunny Tuesday afternoon marked the beginning of a new era in Manipur football. The stateís stars have been known for their talent for long. Today the team itself gained premier position in Indian football, beating Kerala 2-1 in the final of the 58th national football championship for the LG Santosh Trophy that the hosts dominated start to finish.
It was a superb display of team play, of their never-say-die attitude, and of a self-confidence that had been growing through the meet and attained maturity just in time, today.
Pushing ahead via a Tiken Singh goal in the seventh minute, they thrashed around in the Kerala defence for most of the match, but a bit of lethargy, perhaps, and complacency in defence allowed substitute Abdul Noushad to equalise in the 88th minute. Four minutes into extra time, Tomba Singh put the ball in the netting for a golden goal and the title.
There was some controversy attached to the winner, but television replays did clear up things and it was found that the ball had entered a hole in the second netting and had lodged in the nook. However, there was little controversy over which team deserved to win the day.
Manipur not only had total domination of the match, they also showed extraordinary tenacity and guts in every situation, paving the way for lucky breaks.
The euphoria at the end was less than expected, really. The crowd behaved, the players behaved, and it was a nice ending to a rather controversy-ridden Santosh Trophy at the Khuman Lampak main stadium.
As the match started, it was clear that the Manipuris had nothing else but victory on their minds. The reputation that Kerala had brought along with them made no impact on the Manipur confidence. They were sure they could win and went about it in such manner.
The goal, though, came off a rather strange move. A throw-in from the right in the Kerala defensive third saw Uttam Kumar Singh let go a virtually free-kick level floater to the goalmouth. Tiken Singh rose amid the melee and headed in quickly.
The refreshing part of it all was that Manipur, in the lead, refused to rest. They were a vigorous lot, using every available space in the midfield to push directives up, snatching every loose ball and pressuring the Kerala defence that looked pretty pedestrian and almost disinterested.
More surprising was the lack of cohesion in the Kerala half line. Suresh Babu, the main schemer of the team, looked pretty off-colour and K. Ajayan was loping up the right sometimes, only to find no support in the box.
One failed to notice much thought behind the Kerala moves. The bigger problem for Kerala was that they were trying to regroup with those irritatingly dated diagonal moves and time-killer square passes. Football today isnít a game of patience any more.
Manipurís pressure earned them triple benefits. They were able to push the Kerala defence to the limit, they were able to open up opportunities (the fact that the likes of Tomba and Bijen Singh and even Rennedy Singh failed to find the target on several occasions is a different matter). And they were also able to keep the Kerala attackers off their backs.
In the Manipur defence, the experienced Ratan Singh was using his cool head to woo attacks off target and then there was always the brilliant Noren Singh under the bar.
Kerala coach M. Peethambaran was running out of ideas. Babu was taken off, a pretty difficult choice for the coach since he was not able to introduce into the team his trump card, T. Usman.
The player failed to recover from the fever he was laid down with Monday. Peethambaranís options were limited, and strangely enough, the entire team looked jaded, almost disinterested. One might recall that Kerala had three days of rest before the final, compared to just one for Manipur.
Kerala tried to slow the pace of the match in the second half. They had started off with the belief that Manipur were the slower team. Not Tuesday, with the energy level in each player reaching limits.
The Kerala players tried to roll the ball around the defence line, they tried to use long balls ahead, but Manipur were indomitable.
Had Bijen been a little less selfish and passed to some teammates, Manipur could have got a winner early enough. Sixty two minutes into the match Rennedy moved to the top of the box as Bijen cut in.
Bijen collected the pass and with only the onrushing goalkeeper to beat, shot over.
Then, finding one of those rare breaches in the Manipur defence in the 88th minute, Noushad showed how an onrushing goalkeeper is to be handled. Noren came out and Noushad coolly lobbed the ball over his head and into the netting for the equaliser.
Extra time was four minutes old when Tomba collected a pass from the rear, and from the goalmouth, sent a rising volley goalwards. The ball took the palm of the goalkeeper, slipped up and through the hole in the second netting and lodged into the goal.
For moments it wasnít clear if it was a goal and Kerala protested. That was overturned by referee S.M. Balu (reinstated after his semi-final fiasco because there werenít any more Fifa panel officials who have not got enough matches).
The celebrations were instantaneous. Manipurís history books will have a rather glittering chapter from now.
Manipur: Noren Singh, Uttamkumar Singh, Manitombi Singh, Ratan Singh, Shyamananda Singh, James Singh, Tomba Singh, Bijen Singh, Tiken Singh, Bungo Singh (Helen Singh, 62), Rennedy Singh.
Kerala: T.G. Purushothaman, K. Bineesh (Shiva Kumar, 55), Muhammed Shafeeq, Vinu Jose, K. Sameer, Suresh babu (K.M. Abdul Noushad, 61), K. Ajayan, Shabeer Ali, S. Ignatius, Abdul Hakkim (M. Boniface, 73), T. Asif Shaheer.
Referee: S.M. Balu (Karnataka).