Santosh Trophy: Meghalaya create history, reach semi-finals for first time
Bhubaneshwar, Odisha: Meghalaya scripted history entering their maiden semi-final of the Santosh Trophy, becoming the fourth team to enter the last four of the 76th National Football Championship.
The state have never previously progressed to this stage of the tournament and will now vie for the title when the knockouts take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Their dream came true when they beat former champions West Bengal 2-1 in their concluding Group B encounter at the OFA 7th Battalion Ground.
Services have already qualified as the toppers of Group B. The two teams who have qualified from Group A are Punjab and Karnataka. In the semi-finals, Punjab will face Meghalaya, while Services take on Karnataka.
While Meghalaya's players have created history this time in Odisha, the signs that they were not to be written off may well have come a year ago in Malappuram.
They were the first side in the last edition to not just score against hosts Kerala, but also take points off them in a memorable 2-2 draw. While the coaching staff has changed, many of the players remain the same.
"There is a good mix of boys who have experience playing not just Santosh Trophy but also for clubs outside the state. They have a lot of hunger and desire and I'm very happy for them. They deserve it," head coach Khlain Syiemlieh said in a statement released by AIFF.
Despite boasting of some big clubs that have been a part of the I-League (Shillong Lajong, Royal Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United), and Indian internationals of the calibre of Eugenson Lyngdoh and Aiborlang Khongjee, Meghalaya have never truly been regarded as a powerhouse of Northeast football, let alone that of India.
A solitary bronze won in the National Games in 2007 is the peak of their achievements in the game. Khongjee, in fact, was a part of that bronze-winning side and is now the Assistant Coach of the Meghalaya Santosh Trophy team. Ever humble and affable, Khongjee was quick to list this as a much bigger achievement.
"In my time as a player we only qualified for the Santosh Trophy once, And the bronze in the Nationals, while a big thing, wasn't as big as this. This is the Santosh Trophy after all," he said.
Head Coach Syiemlieh is one of the most reputed footballing minds in the state and has held the top job at Rangdajied and more recently with Ryntih FC. His work at the grassroots and familiarity with a huge number of players within the squad has helped them create shockwaves in Indian Football.
Syiemlieh's team started the day knowing that just winning against Bengal would not be enough for them -- they also needed a favour from Services, who were playing Railways at the Capital Football Arena.
Having previously beaten Indian Football giants Manipur and thrashed Delhi, Meghalaya needed to do the job from their end and pray Railways didn't.
Bengal were in no mood to succumb easily though and took the lead via Sougata Hansda in the 36th minute. Meghalaya did not let their heads drop, though, and found their reward at the end of the half, Allen Lyngdoh (44') and Nikelson Bina (45'+3') scoring in quick succession to give them the lead.
The second half was played at a slower pace, Meghalaya keen to see the game out without any drama. An injury to Bengal goalkeeper Shubham Roy meant that there would be a lot of added time, and despite repeated Bengal attempts, an equaliser never arrived. Meghalaya's celebrations began on the pitch itself.
Syiemlieh and Khongjee were duly tossed in the air, surrounded by players who will hope to shake things up even more in the knockouts.
They will face Punjab in the semi-finals at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, a rematch of last year's encounter in the group stage (Punjab won 1-0). Services, meanwhile, will face Karnataka in the second semi-final.