Apart from the Goa, West Bengal, Kerala and the North East, the state of Punjab has always been a hotbed for talented footballers. The likes of Sandesh Jhingan, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and Balwant Singh are some of the players that are lighting up Indian football at the international level.
The Santosh Trophy, that has acted as the National Championship played between different states has also seen a number of great performances by Punjab over the years. While Bengal have won the trophy an overwhelming number of times (32), Punjab are second on that list with eight titles.
Under the coaching of Harjinder Singh, Punjab have made it to the Final of the Santosh Trophy for the second time in five years and face Services in the championship game at the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana on Sunday, April 21.
Incidentally, the same two opponents squared off against each other in 2015 at the same venue, an occasion when Services came out champions, winning 5-4 on penalties. Harjinder Singh, who was the Punjab Head Coach in 2015 as well, however, does not believe in going for revenge in this crunch match.
“It’s not about avenging a defeat. Both our teams were on equal terms that day, and they kept their nerves during the penalties,” he said. “We have to make sure that we play better in the match and win the trophy. I believe the side that makes fewer mistakes will win. My lads are all ready to fight and give their 100 per cent in the final.”
FROM A FOOTBALLING DYNASTY
Harjinder Singh, who is also the Honorary Secretary of the Punjab Football Association, along with being the Head Coach, hails from a family that is all to well known to Indian football fans, being the son of the great Inder Singh. The former India striker had etched his name in history books when he became the joint-top scorer of the 1964 AFC Asian Cup, along with Mordechai Spiegler of Israel. Later, Inder Singh also went on to win the Santosh Trophy with Punjab, the most famous of his exploits coming in 1974, when the North Indian state beat the then mighty Bengal team by a whopping 6-0 margin.
Inder Singh himself had netted 23 goals in the tournament, a feat that has never been matched in 45 years.
“We have always had great players coming through from Punjab,” said Harjinder. “It was not just my father. You look at the JCT Academy; it has given us so many top-flight footballers over the decades.”
A RESURGENCE OF SORTS
While Punjab has won the Santosh Trophy eight times, the state is currently going through an 11-year drought; their last victory came in 2008, when they beat Services 1-0 in Srinagar. Since then they have made it to the final only on one other occasion, making a victory against Services on Sunday imperative.
“The result of the final will purely depend on what strategy the two coaches apply, and how the players respond to the instructions that are given to them,” said Harjinder. “At the end of the day, I, as a coach, can only get satisfaction if my players grow and enjoy the game themselves.”
“I would like to urge all the fans, especially the youngsters in Ludhiana and Punjab to come and support the team. But most of all, I would urge them to appreciate good football, even if it comes from the opponents,” Harjinder signed off.