In recent years, Indian football has descended to such an unimaginable low that it’s very hard to go further south. From such a position, even a few steps in the right direction look like a significant improvement, an effort worth lauding.
If we look back at 2016, this is exactly how the year panned out: decent overall, but compared to the last three or four years, excellent. While there are a number of aspects that need to be taken into account in this year-end review, the performance of the men’s national team has to be at the top of the agenda.
The year started on a victorious note as Stephen Constantine’s men lifted the South Asian Football Federation Championship, defeating Afghanistan. In a few months’ time, they lost two World Cup qualifiers, ending up with just three points from their eight games.
Even after finishing at the bottom of the group, they got the chance to appear in the play-offs, where they steamrolled Laos 7-2 over two legs, including an impressive 6-1 home victory. The best win of the year, though, came in a friendly against Puerto Rico, who at 114, were ranked 38 places above the Blue Tigers.
Sunil Chhetri and company won the match 4-1, with four different players scoring against a higher ranked opponent—a rare incident in the nation’s football history.
The captain for the Puerto Rico match, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, went on to make some history of his own when he became the first Indian to play in the Europa League, for FC Stabaek.
After that tie, India didn’t play any more friendlies, much to the ire of the fans. But as Scroll.in had first explained, it was a well calculated move by the governing body.
India now finds itself in pot 2 of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification round draw, which means they are much more likely to be grouped with easier opponents in the next round. Having started the year with a ranking of 166, they have signed off at 135th, a 31-step improvement.
Gurpreet wasn’t the only Indian-born player to make a mark in Europe, as Bengaluru-born Ishan Pandita became the first Indian to sign a contract for a La Liga club, with CD Leganes. Pandita was followed by Ashique Kuruniyan, who signed for Villarreal FC on a loan deal.
Plight of the clubs
A number of youngsters also established themselves as regulars in the national colours. While the All India Football Federation (AIFF) fared brilliantly in handling the national team, it was shambolic in dealing with the problems of club football in the country.
Three Goan clubs pulled out of the country’s top-flight league, but the hierarchy continued with their wrong line of defence and putting the entire blame on the clubs. This was also the year when the word “merger” entered the lexicon of football fans, as various stakeholders struggled to find a way of merging the Indian Super League and the I-League into a year-long competition.
Even after endless meetings, pressers and behind-the-door discussions, a solution doesn’t look imminent.
Nonetheless, the pinnacle of club football this year was Bengaluru FC’s journey to the AFC Cup final.
This was the first time an Indian club had reached that far in the continental stage, though it must be noted that never before has an I-League club enjoyed the luxury of avoiding West Asian clubs until the summit clash.
The south Indian club, which won its second league title in the first half of the year, has established itself as the benchmark of professionalism for other outfits. The ISL continued to attract stars this year too, most notably former Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan, but got off to a slow start before recovering with late goal-fests. Eventually, the ISL silverware, once again, went to Atletico de Kolkata, even though the vociferous audience in Kochi remained the highlight of this edition.
The administrative preparations for the 2017 U-17 World Cup continued in full swing, even though the squad failed to eke out any memorable win when poised against fellow Asian nations.
However, they notched up a number of impressive victories against foreign clubs during exposure tours. With nine months still in hand, it can be hoped that they will be able to come up with something big on the global stage.
The U-16 and U-18 I-Leagues ran in full throttle, with 55 and 36 teams participating respectively, which means that a lot of young prospects got a platform to showcase their talent.
The women’s team, though, were not that lucky and got to play their first game of the year on December 27, that too against the same old SAFF nations. The AIFF finally managed to start Women’s I-League, but forgot to arrange for any friendlies for the national team—a routine failure in the last couple of years. The team is now ranked 54th in the world.
Meanwhile, a number of famous football personalities—notably former national team coach Amal Dutta and member of India’s 1956 Olympics squad Syed Abdus Salam—passed away.
In all, it was a mixed year for the nation in the beautiful game, but overall the positives outweighed the negatives by a small fraction.