First overseas hosting of the knockout stages signals new era of competition’s revival. Image Credit: Supplied

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia is set to host the 2022-23 semi-finals and final of the Hero Santosh Trophy, India’s historic football championship, in Riyadh respectively on March 1st and 4th. The Kingdom becomes the first overseas country to stage the knockout stages of the competitions since its inception back in 1941.

The hosting of the Trophy’s 76th edition forms part of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) and All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) strong relationship across all areas of the game. The relationship was solidified in October last year with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which covers various areas of the game, from youth development to coaching to women’s football.

Four matches

King Fahd International Stadium will play host to the four matches, giving the opportunity to football fans and to India’s large expatriate population in Riyadh to witness history. The 68,000-capacity ground has been home to major events on the international football calendar since the start of year, such as the Spanish Super Cup between Real Madrid, Barcelona, Real Betis and Valencia, and the Italian Super Cup contested by AC Milan and Inter Milan.

The preliminary stage of the 2022-23 season welcomed 36 states and Union Territories into six different groups. The final round then hosted 12 teams into two groups with the top two teams from each group (Punjab and Services) and the runners-up (Karnataka and Meghalaya) qualifying to the final stages in Saudi Arabia.

Once considered the pinnacle of Indian football, the Santosh Trophy gathered the best players across the country in a contest between all Indian states and the Services and Railways government agencies. Champions of the first edition Bengal have dominated the competition and hold the record of the most wins (32), with Punjab (8) and Kerala (7) following in second and third positions. For over half a century, the Trophy was the most sought-after prize in Indian football and welcomed hundreds of fans across the country and millions tuning in on TV.

As part of its Vision 2047, bringing the competition final stages to Saudi Arabia forms part of AIFF’s efforts to promote Indian football beyond its natural boundaries, helping attract new fans and generate interest on a global level. Players will also have the opportunity to showcase their talent to a wider audience.

Great memories

SAFF General Secretary Ibrahim Alkassim said: “We are delighted to welcome all four teams to the Kingdom as they compete on Saudi soil for the first overseas Santosh Trophy in history. We are aware of the value of this competition, how much it means to Indians across the world and the great memories and traditions it holds. We wish all teams the very best of luck and a great stay in Saudi Arabia.”

AIFF Secretary General Dr Shaji Prabhakaran, said: “On behalf of the AIFF, I express my sincere gratitude to SAFF, for hosting the prestigious Hero Santosh Trophy in Riyadh. It is an ample testimony of the deep-rooted relationship between the two federations, which has grown into a symbiotic association to take the beautiful game ahead. I am confident that the organization of the Hero Santosh Trophy in Riyadh will leave a mark in the minds of all participants and young footballers, who will carry home an experience which they will cherish for many years to come.”