The Indian football fraternity has never been short on optimism. No matter how uncertain the future of the sport may be, there are always reasons to look forward to "better days". Outgrowing the oft-used "sleeping giant" moniker though, seems to be its biggest challenge, as yet another year passes with little accomplished in terms of overall growth of football in India.
It was an eventful year nevertheless, both on and off the field. The men's national side entered the year with the highest of expectations. The team looked set to make its mark in the Asian Cup in the first week of the new year. It was India’s only fourth appearance in the quadrennial tournament.
The Sunil Chhetri-led side burst on to the scene, thumping Thailand 4-1 in the opening game. But a spirited performance against the host UAE could not avoid the 0-2 defeat. And, another decent display against Bahrain could not save the team from being resigned to yet another group stage exit—a cheaply conceded penalty in stoppage time had resulted in the only goal of the game.
The Asian Cup drew the curtains on Stephen Constantine's stint as head coach. His final tournament at the helm wasn't the team's worst performance under him, and though India flew up the FIFA rankings, the Englishman's legacy will be his pragmatic, long-ball style of play. In his place came the more adventurous and possession-inclined Croat, Igor Stimac, arguably India's most high-profile appointment.
Again, despite all the hype, six months into his appointment, a cursory look at results under Stimac can be heartbreaking. The team has won only one of their 10 games, and has dropped seven rungs in its FIFA ranking to 108. Moreover, India's 2022 World Cup dream is all but over, having lost crucial qualification matches. Yet, there has been a marked change in India's approach to games.
According to The Times of India, India's average passes per game has improved from 242 at the Asian Cup to 392 under Stimac, with an impressive pass success rate of 82 per cent. Stimac has often put his faith in youth and though defence continues to be a worry, the team looks stronger than ever in midfield and attack. Defence continues to be a worry, and given the coach's preference to hold the ball, this is a gaping hole in his armour.
Stimac has been pleading for more time with his national team players, who are all usually held back by their ISL clubs. Such has been the ISL’s growing influence in domestic football, that it was finally announced this year that it would be India’s official top flight league. This was much to the chagrin of the I-League clubs that are still locked out of the closed glamorous league.
A long-term roadmap was laid out by the All India Football Federation that would still make it difficult for clubs outside the ISL to enter the monied league. And with the number of clubs shutting down all over the country, the gap between those backed by the rich and influential and those that survive on their own continues to widen.
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Matters on the pitch, though, have certainly improved for the ISL. Refereeing howlers aside, coaches like Sergio Lobera and Carles Cuadrat have imprinted their entertaining, expressive football on Goa FC and Bengaluru FC, respectively. It was fitting that the two sides met in the summit clash of the 2018-19 season, which BFC won. Goa won the Super Cup later on, which was boycotted by most I-League teams. ISL teams are now being allowed to carve their own identities and build team chemistry, rather than being punctuated by annual player auctions.
In the I-League, Chennai City FC won the title after an impressive campaign under Akbar Nawas. It became the third consecutive side to win its maiden title. And, like so many previous seasons, the season was decided on the final match day. But not only has the league's status been relegated to the second division, the substandard broadcast for the current season has also chipped away at the league’s appeal and reach.
In women's football, the national team got more games in 2019 than it did in previous years. The senior squad played as many as 26 official matches this year, winning 16 of them. The team’s FIFA ranking has moved up slightly from 62 to 57. The women’s side convincingly won its fifth straight SAFF Women’s Championship in March and retained the gold medal at the South Asian Games in December.
The team also won the four-nation Gold Cup, and was on the verge of reaching the third round of the Asian qualification for the 2020 Olympics. But after defeating Indonesia and Nepal, a high-intensity 3-3 draw with Myanmar was not enough to top the group. Myanmar went ahead on a better goal difference.
The biggest moment of the year though came when national team captain Ashalata Devi was among the final three to be nominated for the AFC’s women's player of the year. The 26-year-old defender became the first footballer from India to be nominated for the award after a stellar year with club (Sethu FC) and country.
Though result-wise it has been a largely positive year for women’s football, players continue to struggle. They are forced to work part-time jobs amid the hectic training schedules as they don’t get paid enough. The upcoming U-17 Women’s World Cup is hoped to help develop interest in women’s football, and the increase in exposure tours just might improve the standard of their game.
National teams and leagues aside, Services won the Santosh Trophy in April, beating Punjab 1-0 in the final. The Durand Cup, one of the world’s oldest cup competitions, made a return to much fanfare after three years—Kerala’s Gokulam FC beat the Kolkata giant Mohun Bagan 2-1 in the final at the Salt Lake Stadium, in August.
As the decade comes to an end, it can be said that much has happened in Indian football to make it very different to the circumstances it was in, back in 2010. Commercialisation and professionalism have finally made their entry. And the decade ends with the acquisition of an Indian club (Mumbai City FC) by a foreign body that owns a conglomeration of clubs around the world. For a country that has longed for investment in football, one can only hope that the optimism eventually pays off.