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9-min read

A Path Breaking Year for Indian Football Even As Major Drawbacks Remain

When the calendar turned to 2017, in the corridors of Indian football; excitement was rife as the nation was months away from creating history – a first ever FIFA World Cup appearance. That alone though was never going to paper over the cracks in basic structure of the sport, which had oft been subjected to sorry some distribution and torrid decision making.

Abhimanyu Sen | News18 Sports

Updated:December 29, 2017, 12:05 PM IST
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A Path Breaking Year for Indian Football Even As Major Drawbacks Remain
(Getty Images/FIFA)

When the calendar turned to 2017, in the corridors of Indian football; excitement was rife as the nation was months away from creating history – a first ever FIFA World Cup appearance. That alone though was never going to paper over the cracks in basic structure of the sport, which had oft been subjected to sorry some distribution and torrid decision making.

If fanfare touched unimaginable heights when Aizawl FC stood their ground and took the I-League trophy back to Mizoram, Jeakson Singh’s headed goal, the only one India scored as they conceded nine at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, upped it a few notches. But the other side of the coin, had matters such as non-existent women’s football, the conundrum of the Indian Super League and the I-League fighting to stay prominent and the small matter of alleged unethical appointments of the top brass of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The World Cup Dream

One of the most clichéd sayings in the world is that, ‘It is never too late to start afresh.’ India’s preparations to welcome the dream had begun late, but the stakeholders were rightfully optimistic.

The year may have begun with the unceremonious exit of the German coach Nicolai Adam, but that was placed on the back burner very soon as the Portuguese Luis Norton de Matos took over a daunting task.

India’s initiation to World Cup competition was a rude and cruel one on October 6th at the JLN Stadium in New Delhi against USA. The Amarjit Singh led team were outplayed and overpowered as they lost 0-3 and learnt that small mistakes are all it takes to invite the killer blow. USA did not hesitate and de Matos reiterated that India were at least 10 years behind any of the visiting teams.

Up next was Colombia – another piece of history awaited the country. Trailing the South Americans by a goal, India equalized with eight minutes to go as Sanjiv Stalin swung it in for the big Jeakson to head home the country’s first goal at the competition. Amidst the wild celebrations on and off the pitch, the players got relaxed and were handed a 2-1 defeat as Colombia scored instantly. The narrative from the first game had hardly changed.

The third and final outing saw Ghana ruthlessly kill all hopes of an Indian miracle and had it not been for the young Dheeraj Singh between the sticks, it could have been worse.

That journey ended there, and the Blue Colts after a short break set the AFC U-19 Asia Cup as their next target. In three games they won one, drew one and lost one and came back eliminated.

The sport loving country though did not disappoint as thousands thronged to watch the final rounds of the World Cup. The final at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata between eventual champions England and Spain was houseful.

AIFF President Praful Patel along with his right and left hand men, were for the better part of September and October talking optimism and rubbishing aside anything negative around Indian football with disdain.

India had been treated to some delightful football from the youngest stars of the game at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and to replicate that domestically, a well thought out and structured developmental processes are a must.

Indian Domestic Football – Aizwal FC Are Champions of India

While everyone expected Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan to once again make it a two horse race in the I-League, the out of favour Khalid Jamil-coached Aizawl FC realised a dream when they won the country’s top domestic honour in the final days of April.

The team in red from Mizoram had been reinstated before the season started by the AIFF and were considered nothing more than relegation certainties. Jamil, a man of few words, had been shown the door previously at Mumbai FC after a string of bad results. The gritty team at a picturesque home venue took it step by step. David repeatedly beat Goliath and even though Bengaluru FC almost knocked them out, they mounted a memorable comeback.

On the final day, it was Aizawl’s turn to roll the dice and William Lalnunfela’s header to equalise against bitter rivals Shillong Lajong placed them in the upper echelons of Indian football. As the home crowd celebrated and gave football romantics a story to tell to future generations, the traditional powerhouses had been stunned into silence.

Aizawl had become champions of India and in the process proved to the world that logic isn’t always the best judge, especially in sport. Aizawl were given every possible compliment in the following weeks, and they rightfully deserved every word of it.

But, the future seemed gloomy after the summer as they faced a very realistic and the alarming prospect of being relegated from the top flight.

Even as that was being sorted out, Aizawl went to Odisha in the scorching heat of May to take part in the Federation Cup. A semi-final loss to Bengaluru FC showed that India’s champions were not a fluke story.

I-League and Indian Super League

Set on finally having a league that would combine teams from both competitions, the AIFF had initially planned to rope in East Bengal, Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan to the cash rich Indian Super League (ISL), which would then be regarded as the premier competition.

But, Aizawl’s triumph followed by the Kolkata giants’ egoistic refusal to pay a franchise fee for the ISL had put a spanner in the works.

Both competitions welcomed new teams for the next season and would begin with a roster of 10 sides. Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC added some steel to the ISL, while NEROCA added one more team from the north east of India and Gokulam Kerala brought the I-League back to God’s own country. DSK Shivajians in Pune were suffering and eventually closed shop before the AIFF restarted the Arrows project (Pailan Arrows 2010 – 2013) in the form of the Indian Arrows, comprising a mix of the U-17 and U-19 national teams.

The AFC and FIFA, who had their eye on India for the major chunk of the year, were having none of that, and promptly made their stand clear – one league was the need of the hour or they risked sanctions.

“It's not a question of what we are favouring or not. It's in the AFC Constitution that one country should have one league. We just gave provision (for two leagues) for a transition period. That's all," said AFC General Secretary Dato Windsor in October, after a team of FIFA and AFC had visited India to help prepare a blueprint.

In June, after a meeting with all stakeholders, AFC said, “There is a need to find solutions which ensure that Indian football is protected and that there are opportunities for young players, who must not be lost to our game.”

Any major footballing nation in the world has a system that thrives on vertical movement. The lack of a systematic process was hurting India and at least, a level playing field is a must.

The AIFF copped a lot of flak for their initial plans, but had no choice but to fall in line.

Indian National Team

The Indian national team led by Sunil Chhetri had one of their best years. After going through a rather rough patch the national team fought back with vigour. Managed by Stephen Constantine, who was in his second stint at the helm of the Indian team, they won significantly more number of games than they lost along with a whole host of debuts.

One of the highlights of the year for the Blue Tigers, was achieving a FIFA ranking of 96, the best ever in over two decades. Weeks before that, captain Sunil Chhetri became the fourth highest goal scorer internationally amongst active players and overtook Wayne Rooney when he scored his 54th goal against Kyrgyz Republic in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifier.

India’s target was the 2019 Asia Cup. In October, India beat Macau to win their fourth consecutive qualifier and seal direct qualification for the Asian Cup which will be held in UAE. This will be the fourth appearance for India in the continental tournament.

India also took home a piece of silverware, when they turned out to be the best (1 W, 1 D out of 2 matches) in a tri-nation tournament along with St Kitts and Nevis and Mauritius.

The coming year will be crucial for the national team as they look to build on a year where the hard work has paid dividends. Constantine will look to fix the chinks in the armour, and hope lady luck shines brighter on the newly married Sunil Chhetri.

Fresh Starts

Indian football has often been lacking in terms development, but 2017 gave realistic reason to hope for progress.

The AIFF have not only done well to keep the country’s first World Cuppers together, but they have also taken Youth League football to the U-13 level. The parent body also chalked out a plan to engage younger children into the sport with their idea of the ‘Baby League’ which eventually was rolled in the second half of the year.

Spearheaded by Richard Hood, AIFF’s Head of Youth Development, the project which is expected to bring in players from the age of 7 and upwards has been well received in Mizoram and Maharashtra, the two states who have decided to set the ball rolling early.

The Indian Arrows, the side comprising the World Cuppers and a few U-19 players, are giving all they can to make use of with competitive football. Before they take on Mohun Bagan on December 30th, they have played five games, winning two and losing three.

One of the most heard phrases or used phrases in Indian football was ‘Football Takes Over’ thanks to the World Cup. For that to really happen, the momentum has to be used in the correct manner otherwise India risk becoming the sleeping giants once again.

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| Edited by: Abhimanyu Sen
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