The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Instinctive Manipuris up against organised Kerala

Imphal: Tuesday afternoon, at the Khuman Lampak main stadium here, it will be deja vu for Kerala, the doorstep to a huge history chapter for Manipur. In the final of the 58th national football championship for the LG Santosh Trophy the rivals will experience different emotions.

This is the high point of Manipur football, absolutely the zenith. It is a situation in which established equations fail to carry, and heads aren’t so cool. It is a fact that Kerala, the holders and four-time champions, will have tag along generations of excellence in soccer, but, as their coach M. Peethambaran said after practice Monday: “They have their stars, we just have good teamwork.”

Perhaps a trifle modest, that was, considering the fine show his team has given here, but Peethambaran does acknowledge the fact that individual brilliance often matters. Not that this was very visible in the semi-finals — shoddy strategy and onfield intransigence — but the psychological high is important. It is what, perhaps, Manipur coach Ch. Shantikumar Singh tried to say when he explained: “I think we beat a very good Goa team Sunday. I am sure Kerala are a very accomplished side, but let us see this in the backdrop of our win versus Goa.”

It makes some weird sense, but sense nevertheless. When one starts to believe in oneself, there is little one cannot achieve. The comparison with South Korea in the last World Cup could draw sniggers, but the analogy is rather tempting. This time, though, there isn’t any Guus Hiddink to lead. Shantikumar has modest aims in comparison.

“They are hardworking, go for the ball, and they defend with all might,” said Peethambaran of the Manipuris. “And their goalkeeper is brilliant. I believe their win was 70 per cent because of their goalkeeper Noren Singh.” That might sound as a somewhat backhanded compliment, but Peethambaran seems to have real respect for the hosts, and not because of the crowd. “Crowds aren’t a problem, we can handle that,” explains Peethambaran. “Why, last year itself, in Mumbai, we played Goa and all the fans had come down from Goa. My players have the confidence in them to go out and play all out and win.” While Manipur will miss dependable defender Uttam Singh (because of Sunday’s red card), Kerala have no such problem. No injuries either.

Kerala have talent and speed. “We are faster than Manipur,” said Peethambaran, “T. Asif Saheer, S. Ignatious, K. Ajayan and one-half player T. Usman (who had a slight fever Monday, but “sure to recover by evening,” said Peethambaran) have really bothered defences. In the semi-final they combined well to push Services on the backfoot. But the Kerala defence has not really shone up in good light.

“Suresh Babu is the schemer, and we depend on him a lot,” said Peethambaran. “He is that midfield general who can make the team move.” Problem is, quite like Usman, the experienced Babu also has a limited stamina hurdle.

One would expect a quick and early Kerala offensive, to bang home goals before the energy levels drop. One would expect them to take a little more care of the defence. Manipur wouldn’t exactly be sitting on their haunches, waiting for the reverse. There is enough talent in the team to push through wild combinations. But that is where the problem lies for the home team. Strategy is a strange word for them. They have relied on instinct, on physical ability, and on whatever has been picked up playing club soccer in Bengal and in Goa. And when they did rely on the stars they felt the big boys were saving their best for their clubs, trying to prevent injury.

Hence the pressure will be on the Bijen Singhs and the Rennedy Singhs and the Bungo Singhs (if he is in the first team). James has been indistinguishable in the midfield, but he has been known to possess that crave for success. Hope that surfaces Tuesday. There was a point in the semis versus Goa when Ratan Singh freed himself from the defence and took an offensive up to the attack line. Ratan can keep a cool head on his shoulders, maybe there is sense in allowing him to overlap a bit more.

The lack of rest is worrying the Manipur coach. “We should have been allowed an extra day’s rest, especially after these two days of tension and toil,” he said. “But what can be done, we will have to make do with this.” Peethambaran, though, does not buy this. “Come on, recovery time for a footballer is eight hours,” he said.

Probably the only similarity is that for Manipur it will be a great deal of pride to be earned for generations to come. For Kerala, as Peethambaran put it: “Even the World Cup isn’t as important as winning the Santosh Trophy in Kerala. He hails from Thrissur, the nursery of Kerala soccer, the home of the I. M. Vijayans. He should know.

n Manipur girls search for a better life, on Page 25

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