What are Tamil Nadu’s chances in the forthcoming Santosh trophy, phase one of which is to be held in Chennai? C. M. Ranjith, coach of the state squad, talks about challenges the players' face

The New Year brings with it fresh hopes and aspirations for Tamil Nadu football. Twice in the past, the state had come close to gift-wrapping the glittering Santosh trophy, the symbol of supremacy in Indian football, but those dreams were shattered. If Bengal had denied Tamil Nadu the joy in 1973 then, as recently as 2011, Services had dashed all its hopes in Cuttack. To have been a contender for the top spot is in itself a huge achievement for Tamil Nadu, considering the lack of encouragement for football in the state. Tournaments are few and the key channel to tap talent, the national football league, has no presence in the state.

When Indian Bank was in the national league several years ago, interest in the sport was kindled and talented players began to pursue football as a career and even join professional clubs in other states. The case of Raman Vijayan, for instance, inspires. A gifted player, Vijayan used the recognition he earned as an Indian Bank player to move to the glamour clubs in Kolkata, making a name for himself. What’s more, he made his money. Many others followed suit. Interest in the sport developed and opportunities grew.

Importance of fitness

Times seem to have changed, gradually. “It is not the lack of talent but lack of activity that is worrying,” said C. M. Ranjith, a dashing player and now state coach of the team for the forthcoming Santosh trophy national championship. A State Bank officer, Ranjith’s sharp-shooting prowess made him a local hero ever since the 1984 national championship held in Chennai when he played for Kerala. “General fitness and strong limbs are what make a player effective. And this can come about only through proper training and constant exposure to quality tournaments,” said Ranjith, who was busy picking the 20-member State squad from among 36 select players.

An ‘A’ licence coach now, Ranjith is known for the way he has kept SBI afloat in the local league with his knack of choosing the right man for the right job. It is a different matter that the lack of recruitment has, of late, weakened the SBI football team. But an encouraging aspect of Ranjith’s present assignment is “for each position in the team, be it the forward-line, midfield or defence, there is so much competition.” “It is a challenge for me too,” he quipped.

Having assisted the Indian junior teams in the past, Ranjith has that additional experience which could come in handy, considering his present assignment is tough. “We have to reckon with teams like Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra first,” in the preliminary phase, to be held in Chennai, before thinking of Siliguri, where the final phase will be held. “The good thing is the enthusiasm of the boys and their willingness to play to plan. This is indeed a confidence-builder. Then there is the new practice ground in the precincts of the Nehru stadium which is so inviting,” he said.

Considering Chennai has not had a football competition of quality for a while, this initial phase of the national championship should evoke a good response from the fans. But, as Ranjith says, “Crowd support is one thing, what is essential is for the players to play to potential.” Therein lies the key to Tamil Nadu’s fortunes in this edition of the Santosh trophy.