Playing Hero Santosh Trophy abroad a rare opportunity, says Steven Dias

BHUBANESWAR: Steven Dias knows a thing or two about battling teams away from home. The Maharashtra coach, a former India International, watched his wards eke out a hard fought draw against hosts Odisha in their opener of the 76th National Football Championships for the Hero Santosh Trophy on February 10. 

In an entertaining game, Maharashtra battled a late Odisha onslaught to emerge with one point, a valuable one in the circumstances. For Dias, it was the equivalent of a win, for reasons aplenty but mostly because of the grit on display. 

“It takes a lot to beat the home team in front of their crowd,” he says. And yet, in this tournament, of late, perhaps it’s easier done than said. In this millennium, the hosts have only won the tournament thrice (Manipur in 2002-03; Bengal in 2009-10; Kerala 2021-22). Go back a mere 10 years more and the number almost doubles, Goa (1989-90) and Kerala (1992-93) adding to their laurels. 

Dias has broken home team hearts before and in the most partisan fan environment in Indian Football no less. 

In 2005-06, Maharashtra faced Kerala in the semifinals in Kochi, beating them 1-0 to progress to the final, where they eventually lost to Goa. 

“That Kerala team was a behemoth,” Dias laughs. “It had IM Vijayan! They also had NP Pradeep, Mohammad Rafi, Ancheri, all India internationals. I was also an India international then but I was one of very few in that team. We beat them in a stadium with almost 90,000 people watching. It is one of the most memorable moments of my career.”

Fans at the ground have been a conversation point through this year’s tournament with Kolhapur witnessing a 15,000 crowd for a group stage game. Dias acknowledges that they played a huge part in getting his team to the final round. 

“Fans are essential to football,” he says. “I’m glad we are dawning more fans to come watch. Without them it feels like a training game. It also really boosts players’ morale. They want to do more, give more, okay football that will entertain.”

With the semi-finals and final to be hosted in Riyadh next month Dias believes an additional motivator has now dropped into the mix. 

“For a lot of these boys just that opportunity is a prize in itself,” Dias says. “It’s a rare few who get to enjoy the opportunity to play abroad, experience training and playing conditions away from India, and to give that to those playing the Santosh Trophy, is truly commendable. “For me this tournament holds a special place. It has an allure that is undeniable and I also think it’s a hugely important part of our calendar,” Dias says. “In my time the Indian team would be picked from how they played in this tournament. Even now players’ performances here are noticed by clubs. It can set their professional careers. It guarantees them matches and gives them a chance at game time.”

Also Read:WIFA announce squad for Santosh Trophy final Round

Also Read:Delhi hold West Bengal to a 2-2 draw

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