Never mind the ISL, it’s been an utterly mediocre year for Indian football

India still lacks a true football culture.
India still lacks a true football culture.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Football aficionados have had much to cherish this year.

The World Cup in Brazil was a delightful one-month-long festival where Robin Van Persie showcased flyings headers, James Rodriguez charmed with his innate skills and Germany annihilated Brazil, the spiritual owners of the game.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Real Madrid conquered Europe, winning the “La Decima” 4-1 against its city rivals, while Manchester City scored a staggering 102 goals in the Premier League to claim the English title.

Meanwhile, Indian football went out with a bang—as Atlético de Kolkata were crowned champions of the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL).

Mired in mediocrity

But it hasn’t exactly been a beautiful year for the beautiful game in India. The many deficiencies, which have been hampering the development of Indian football for long, resurfaced at both national and club level.

The Blue Tigers, as the Indian national team is sometimes called, waded in mediocrity this year. They played two official friendlies, drawing with Bangladesh and losing to tiny, conflict-torn Palestine, 2-3. The team’s Dutch coach, Wim Koevermans, resigned in the wake of that defeat in August.

Coincidentally, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is still searching for Koevermans’s replacement. Kiwi Richard Herbert (Northeast United FC), Trevor Morgan (Kerala Blasters) and Ashley Westwood (Bengaluru FC) are said to be the frontrunners for the top job in Indian football. Zico, who coached FC Goa in the ISL, is also credible candidate, but his salary demands might be difficult to meet for the AIFF.

The new coach will have to rejuvenate India, because Koevermans, in truth, never managed to fundamentally alter India’s style of play during his three-year stint. He aimed for attacking dominance, but the team often looked most dangerous on the counter. And India simply remains overly reliant on their star player, Sunil Chhetri.

“It’s not been a good year from a national team perspective,” said Stephen Constantine, who coached India from 2002 to 2005. “Their FIFA ranking of 171 [just below Sao Tome and Principe] is a reflection of that. It’s sad that India has not gone on to better things.”

At the Asian Games in Incheon in September and early October, the Blue Tigers meekly succumbed to the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, ensuring an early exit in the group stages.

Women winning

The Indian women’s team, on the other hand, have had a slightly more encouraging run in the last twelve months.

They cemented their local supremacy by winning a third consecutive South Asian Football Federation Championship. They scored 36 goals in doing so, with Bala Devi bagging 16 goals. She is the female Sunil Chhetri, women’s coach Tarun Roy told Quartz, but the number of goals India’s opponents shipped is telling of the tournament’s level.

In Incheon, Bala Devi netted two goals in a 15-0 route of the Maldives before her team collapsed spectacularly to, twice, lose 10-0 against South Korea and Thailand, respectively. The women’s team is a regional force, but failed to step it up on the bigger stage. Their next aim is to play a credible Olympic qualifying campaign in 2015.

“Women’s football gets very little funding,” said Novy Kapadia, an Indian football expert. “A professional women’s league may start though next year and that could be helpful.”

Funding, and grassroots development, is part of a cliched and much preached homily for India, a country that lacks a true football culture. FIFA has pledged up to a possible $80,000 per year per country between 2015 and 2018 in its bid to develop women’s football. The All Indian Football Federations’s precise funding for the women’s game remains unclear.

The answer to further progression of the women’s game lies in Kapadia’s answer: a new professional league. The AIFF’s general secretary Kushal Das expressed the desire to replicate the ISL format in the women’s game. “We are planning to start a franchise-based women’s football league in mid-2015 with the help of FIFA,” he said on the sidelines of FIFA’s Women’s Football Regional Development seminar in New Delhi.

“The ISL has been a huge success,” said Constantine, although the football on display has been of a questionable quality with old, foreign marquee players often forming the spine of teams. But that hasn’t stopped Indian fans from buying into the ISL. A sellout crowd of 36,000 watched Sunday’s final at Mumbai’s D.Y. Patil Stadium. The nine week long ISL boasted average attendances of 26,000. The TV figures were also encouraging (paywall) with more than 400 million viewers.

“The domestic league is a mirror of the football played in the particular country, having a good strong domestic league is paramount to having a solid national team,” explained Constantine.

One country, two leagues 

It is a dogma that also resonated in the men’s game. Technically, the I-league is India’s official football league, as recognized by FIFA, but can the popularity of the ISL spur the AIFF on to reformat domestic club football?

One possibility is to merge the ISL with the I-League, especially since the latter has none of the fun, frolic and commercial value to entice the Indian public. “It’s a huge opportunity for both the AIFF and ISL to come together to help what everyone wants,  to see a good competitive league in India,” an optimistic Constantine said.

“It [a merger] might be a veritable Pandora’s box as questions will arise,” said Kapadia. Will the new league be focusing on building a brand? Will the AIFF retain a quota of four foreign players per franchise? Will the franchise owners want control of the league, marginalizing the AIFF’s role?

The new league, if conceived, must have a twofold aim: the further popularization of football and the development of local talent. The ISL is too much about a quick buck for players, while the I-League offers a window for talent development but lacks sufficient financial backing.

For Indian football a convergence of the two league’s is probably the best avenue to take after a mixed year. Else, India will have remain on the sidelines and continue watching how Real Madrid and Germany reign over the global game.