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Major step for Indian football: Stage set for Santosh Trophy knockouts in Riyadh

Former champions Punjab will take on first-timers Meghalaya in the first semifinal while Services will meet Karnataka in the second semifinal at the same stadium on Wednesday. The third-place match and final will be played on March 4, thus bringing the curtains down on a major chapter in the history of Indian football.

Punjab had topped Group A in the final round with three wins and two draws while Karnataka were second, finishing with two wins and three draws. Punjab scored 12 goals in three matches, conceding eight goals, while Karnataka scored 10 and allowed seven goals.

Services topped Group B in the final round with four wins and a draw from five matches. Meghalaya took the second spot with three wins, one draw and one defeat in the six-team group.

In all the event started with 36 teams representing the states and Union territories of India with the teams drawn into six groups. The six group winners and three best runner-up teams qualified for the final round along with Railways, Services and the host of the round (Odisha).

Thus, Punjab, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and Delhi qualified as group toppers while Karnataka, Manipur and Maharashtra made it as the three best runner-up teams.

Though the preliminary group stage matches were held at various venues across the country, the final round was held in Bhubaneswar.

Now, the stage is set for the knockout rounds, which will be held in Riyadh as per a memorandum of understanding signed between AIFF and the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) in October 2022.

The four teams have reached Riyadh in the last two days and are getting ready for this maiden venture abroad for Santosh Trophy. Meghalaya and Karnataka reached Riyadh on Sunday while Punjab and Services made it on Monday. Meghalaya and Karnataka had their first training session at the King Fahad Stadium on Monday. The teams will be having their final training session on Tuesday before the all-important semifinals on Wednesday.

The Saudi Arabia Football Federation has made available the top two stadiums in Riyadh — the King Fahad International Stadium and Prince Sultan Football Stadium to AIFF for Santosh Trophy. While King Fahad stadium will host the four knock-out matches, Prince Sultan Stadium will be used for training purposes.

Though a lot of people will consider this short trip to Riyadh a gimmick if it gets sponsors and broadcasters interested, it would give Indian football a bit more mileage and attention.

It would not have been a unique experience for top players of the country to play abroad. But nowadays with Indian club teams participating in various Continental competitions conducted by the Asian Football Federation (AFC), it may not be such a novel experience for players representing various clubs in Indian Super League (ISL) or I-League.

ISL clubs had conducted camps in the Gulf region before last season and some of them also have deals with foreign clubs for sending their players for training. The national team too gets a lot of chances to play friendlies and official AFC and FIFA level competitions.

However, with top ISL and I-League players not involved in the Santosh Trophy, it will be a learning experience for the players, who may otherwise not get many chances to play on foreign soil.

The matches pose another challenge for the players as they have to make a quick air dash to Saudi Arabia, have a couple of training sessions and play important matches.

With weather conditions currently in Riyadh similar to many cities back in India, acclimatisation may not prove a big problem for the teams. The day temperature in Riyadh is in the 30s while it is cooler at night, with the temperature hovering between 17 degrees celsius and 20 degrees.



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