Dream. History. Milestone. Words that often run the risk of becoming trite, thanks to their ubiquitous use. Finding a better expression to accurately describe what awaits the Meghalaya and Karnataka teams on Saturday night would be difficult. That’s why these words were repeated every time the coaches and players of the two teams spoke on the eve of the Santosh Trophy final, which will take place at King Fahd International Stadium here Saturday.
Meghalaya reached the senior national championship final for the first time in the competition’s 82-year history, and Karnataka last won the title 54 years ago, when the state was still known as Mysore. Although the southern state has played in the finals nine times — eight times as Mysore — and won four times. They last played in the final 47 years ago (1975-76) and last won it in 1968-69 in Bangalore.
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Karnataka coach Ravi Raj Babu was two years old when Karnataka last reached the Santosh Trophy final. No one on our roster was born when we last played in the finals. We know exactly what’s at stake. We flew here with the goal of coming back with a trophy, and we’re going to get it, he said.
Over the years I’ve heard stories of teams from Mysore making it to the finals and winning it. It’s time to write my own story, said the 49-year-old, who didn’t take charge of the Karnataka team until December 2022.
With an average age of 25, his team has a good mix of youth and experience, and most players are products of Bengaluru’s efficient league system. Four players on the team are Bengaluru FC reserves, three play for Bangalore Sporting, four from Bengaluru United and five from Kickstart FC. All of these clubs play in the Bangalore Super Division league, which is the top league in the state of Karnataka.
The biggest motivation for our players is to get professional contracts, possibly with ISL or I-League clubs. The Santosh Trophy could open up a lot of opportunities for them, the coach said.
Karnataka hardly had a smooth path to the finals. After finishing second in their group in the group stage, they finished behind Punjab in the finals with two wins and three draws. Two of those draws came in the second half, during extra time. The convincing victory finally came in the semifinals whenthey defeated the Servicemen 3-1. In their last three matches – against Punjab, Maharashtra and Services – Karnataka have lost first and this is a problem the team would like to solve in a match at the highest level.
This (conceding early goals) is a problem. We can’t afford any mistakes against Meghalaya, who gets very compact after scoring. They have good strikers and midfield, but we would like to put pressure on their defense, Ravi Raju said.
My admonition to the boys is simple: stay calm for 90 minutes. Don’t mistake passes, possess the ball and score when possible. You must go into the big finals with an unclouded mind. We would like to finish the match in regulation time, because the hard ground tests your stamina as the game goes on. I told my guys not to celebrate until the trophy is won.
Meghalaya, on the other hand, is not shy about spilling his emotions. You’ll see a lot of crazy celebrations after we win the trophy, grinned striker Shin Stephenson, who scored the winning goal against Punjab in the semifinals.
It’s a special occasion for us. Soccer is very popular in Meghalaya, and we expect thousands of people to come and cheer us on if we win, added Brolington Varlarpich. The 34-year-old defender will hang up his cleats after the final. Most parts of the northeastern state have set up giant screens that will broadcast the final live, Hline coach Pirkhat Siemlieh said.
Winning tomorrow (Saturday) will be huge for our state. We’re getting calls and messages from home wishing us luck. It’s overwhelming, he added.
Skipper Fulmun Muhim, who missed the semifinals because of a right calf sprain, will be ready for the finals. Karnataka is a good team, but the field is always 11 against 11. We start on equal footing, he said.
The third-place match will be played between Services and Punjab. While Servises has won five of the last ten finals, Punjab has reached the last stage twice in the same period.