Shillong, Feb 21: Meghalaya’s historic achievement of reaching the semifinals of the 76th Men’s National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy will inspire future generations of young children, coach Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh has said.

Speaking to the All India Football Federation website a day after Meghalaya qualified for the semis for the very first time, Syiemlieh was reflecting on the massive achievement and the journey still to come.

Syiemlieh is a trusted and well-regarded coach in Meghalaya. He had been with Rangdajied United FC for years before joining Ryntih SC as they took part in the I-League Qualifiers in 2021.

After that unsuccessful run, the AFC A licence holder led Mawlai SC to their first Shillong Premier League title last year.

His other duties as a coach employed by the state government have included leading the Meghalaya U-21 football team at the Khelo India Youth Games in 2020, a year before the state picked up the first of their two consecutive bronze medals under coach Jeffrey Warlarpih.

In recent years, Meghalaya in the Santosh Trophy had delivered consistent yet unremarkable performances – often qualifying for the final round but not getting very far there. It was in the age categories that the state had done well in, like the Sub-Junior National Football Championship in 2019 under Warlarpih and Subroto Cup in 2019 under Bobby Lyngdoh Nongbet.

But it was the senior teams that never could quite deliver on the talent they possessed.

This year the format changed in the Santosh Trophy and Syiemlieh felt that this benefited his players. Gone was the small zonal round they had to play in before against two or three other North East teams and in came a longer preliminary stage with five different opponents.

“We prepared very well and the larger number of games also helped the team grow,” Syiemlieh told the AIFF. “It gave many boys an opportunity to prove themselves and find their bearings.”

In the final round, however, Meghalaya were handed a defeat in their opening match against Services. A 1-0 win followed against Manipur but a goalless draw against Railways came straight after and that left Meghalaya having only scored one goal in three games.

The team had come through the prelims without defeat, so Syiemlieh had to galvanise his unit. The good thing was that they had their chances against Services, with the latter’s goalkeeper the hero.

But even their one goal against Manipur was a bit lucky, as the Brolington Warlarpih free-kick was fumbled by the opposition goalie and that proved to be crucial to the final outcome of the match.

“Our main problem was scoring goals,” Syiemlieh said. “Our strikers were lacking confidence and, despite a lot of good football, the finishing was lacking.”

The dam then burst against Delhi. They scored five and looked imperious. A day prior, he told the AIFF, the coaching staff sat down with some of the senior players and spoke about building confidence.

“For me, having someone like Aibor [Khongjee among the support staff] is very useful,” Syiemlieh explained. “He is adored by this young generation and has a lot of ideas about how to get the best out of players. His is a fresh voice, much needed in Meghalaya football.”

In the aftermath of their historic achievement, as the players celebrated joyously in the dressing room, Syiemlieh, Khongjee and assistant coach Dious Lapasam sat around and just chuckled to themselves.

“This is their moment,” the coach said. “They deserve it. It will inspire a lot of kids in the state. Now we go to Riyadh [in Saudi Arabia for the semifinals] and hope to create some more history.”

(All India Football Federation photo)

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