Santosh Trophy’s move to Saudi Arabia should be investigated: Bhutia

Bhaichung Bhutia wants a probe into whether there is a link between India pulling out its bid to host the 2027 Asian Cup and the Santosh Trophy going to Saudi Arabia. “I would want AFC (Asian Football Confederation), FIFA and the government of India’s sports ministry to investigate…There is something fishy about it,” the former India captain said.

Speaking on HT’s Kicks For Free podcast ahead of Saturday’s Kolkata derby in the Indian Super League (ISL), Bhutia said All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey and secretary-general Shaji Prabhakaran withdrew the bid without informing the executive committee. As an international with over 100 caps, Bhutia is an executive committee member.

HT Kicks For Free Podcast: Ahead of the Kolkata derby, Bhaichung Bhutia unplugged

“Who’s winning the bid (for the 2027 Asian Cup)? Saudi Arabia. How come Shaji and Kalyan pulled out of the bid without consulting the executive committee? And now the Santosh Trophy is being hosted by Saudi Arabia. This has to be investigated,” said Bhutia, speaking from his home in Gangtok.

Prabhakaran denied the charge. “Without the approval of the executive committee, we couldn’t have withdrawn the bid,” he said. It was listed on the agenda for an executive committee meeting on November 15 but could not be taken up due to lack of time, he said. AIFF then circulated it on e-mail for members’ approval, said Prabhakaran. Explaining its decision in December, AIFF had said it wanted to focus on strengthening the fundamentals rather than host a major competition.

Bhutia, 46, also said taking the inter-state championship to Riyadh – in a first, the semi-finals and final will be played there next month – “does not benefit anybody” and that “it will be a nice holiday” for officials.

Meghalaya, Services, Punjab and Karnataka have qualified for the semi-finals in the competition which began with 36 teams.

Bhutia, who lost to Chaubey in last September’s elections, said he wasn’t enthused by Vision 2047, Indian football’s strategic roadmap, either. The “most important” thing today is to produce players, he said. For that the states need to have a proper grassroots structure, he said.

“Look at how they (AIFF) have organised the under-17 league. They asked states to nominate two teams. That means the state association does not need to do any work, you just select two favourite teams and send…”

Zonal qualifiers has been the norm and that meant more teams taking part first round. Prabhakaran said the 2022-23 competition was held only to strengthen the squad for the 2023 Asian under-17 finals. If AIFF had waited for states to finish their competitions before holding the national youth league, it would have been too late to get fresh talent for the Asian finals, he said. The Asian under-17 finals will be in May.

From this year, the states will hold their age-specific leagues in July-August and the national under-17 league will be held in October-November, said Prabhakaran.

Bhutia said ISL and AIFF must ensure that it is not left to the “last moment for East Bengal to get an entry.” The East Bengal icon – Bhutia played nine seasons for the team in red-and-gold between 1993 and 2011 scoring 67 goals including independent India’s first hattrick in a Kolkata derby in 1997 – said it harmed ISL and East Bengal’s brand value.

“East Bengal has fans willing to die for it. It has a legacy. So, don’t treat East Bengal that way,” he said.

Since 2020-21 when they joined ISL, East Bengal’s search for an investor has led to their participation being confirmed late every season thereby affecting team building. Given the difficulties, ATK Mohun Bagan start favourites but in a derby you can never tell, said Bhutia.

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