It's 2000. India are ranked 122nd in the world. A year later, they would hit their peak since the turn of the millenium -- reach 121st. Since then though, the Indian national football team has sunk more than sailed. Their current ranking is 166, up five places from the lowly 171st they hit in December 2014. There have been major changes on the domestic front as well -- three leagues have come (and one gone) as the National Football League (started in 1996), the I-League (2007) and the Indian Super League all promised new frontiers. Two of these leagues haven't delivered on most of them and the latest one is still in its infancy.
It's safe to say that Indian football has seen more ups and downs in the last 15 years than a rollercoaster. Every high point was preceded by great expectation, and followed by a dip of incredible magnitude without any exhilaration, before rising again with a tide of hope. The latest entrant to the country's football calendar, the ISL, is part of that tide -- a larger part of which is the U17 World Cup in 2017. With that clear mandate, the AIFF (All India Football Federation), is ploughing on with their plans, bracing themselves for an event that could decide the country's sporting legacy.
There's also the odd coincidence of Stephen Constantine being at the helm of the national team, just like he was two years after the turn of the millenium. Constantine, who returned to manage India earlier in 2015, had a stint from 2002-2005, one in which he was also named AFC Manager of the Month after leading India to a silver medal at the Afro Asian Games in 2003. India beat the likes of Rwanda and Zimbabwe en route to the final (a respectable 1-0 loss against Uzbekistan), but on his return Constantine has had to face an embarrassing defeat to Guam in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers (Zimbabwe were 85 places above India when India beat them in 2003, Guam were 33 places below India before the WCQ loss). India have won just one out of six World Cup 2018 Qualifiers.
It's a bit of a full circle for Constantine -- who is now facing more difficulties in getting things done his way due to the number of stakeholders in Indian football. Also, with television, Twitter, Facebook and digital news media booming in the years between Constantine's two stints, the attention on the team's performances is unprecedented.
It was fellow Englishman Bob Houghton who lead India to their biggest achievement in the 15 years gone by lifting the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008. India were riding high on Bhaichung Bhutia's goals and remarkably topped their group which consisted of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. They entered the final unbeaten, and hammered Tajikistan 4-1 to win the tournament and qualify for the AFC Asian Cup (2011) in Qatar after a gap of 27 years. Houghton left in 2011, and India capitulated in the AFC Challenge Cup 2012, losing all their matches -- a shadow of the team they were four years earlier.
"The high point for Indian football in the last 15 years was qualifying for the Asian Cup final rounds under the pragmatic guidance of Houghton. He also helped India gain three successive titles the Nehru Cup in 2007 and 2009 and the AFC Challenge title in 2008 at the Ambedkar stadium," senior football journalist Novy Kapadia told Firstpost.
Back home, it became clear that the AIFF's rebranded domestic league - the I-League - was failing. This, despite the Rs 700 crore deal with IMG-Reliance (as commercial partners) and the relative success of clubs Dempo and East Bengal in the continental AFC Cup. The I-League simply failed to take off. Matches played at 3 PM on weekdays were no match for a fanbase which was used to the Premier League on weekend evenings. Marketing wise, it was hard to even recognise when the I-League started. The Kolkata superclubs - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, would continue to see some attendance on matchdays and broke records at the derby - but a country's fortunes did not depend on two fixtures. After the Saradha Group chit fund scam, it got worse for these clubs. There was only one solution -- a third league, short and sweet but full of stars nearing retirement and which would be shown during primetime hours.
Thus, the Indian Super League was born -- blessed with sponsors ranging from Hero to Samsung to Maruti Suzuki, Puma and Amul -- and recognisable names like Roberto Carlos, Zico, Elano, Alessandro del Piero, Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda among others. There was money spent on Indians and foreigners alike, auctions took place and so did kit launches. Suddenly, Indian football was on the back pages, getting deserved attention.
But everything has two sides. While the ISL made Indian footballers household names through its franchisee system, I-League clubs were left to die. Bharat FC, Pune FC and Royal Wahingdoh have all pulled out of the 2016 season. The questions they ask are: what about us? Didn't IMG-Reliance sign a deal to promote the I-League? What happened to that? We are the real clubs, we have history, we have legacy.
Sadly, football doesn't run on legacy or history. It runs on sponsorship money and television rights and star names. It runs on professionalism, something a lot of I-League clubs are still trying to figure out. The AIFF, stakeholder in both leagues, is caught in the conundrum of giving India one unified league. It will be impossible to keep everyone happy.
"We need to find a solution. Call it whatever you want, but India needs one league. The AIFF, the ISL and the I-League should sit down together and discuss this, work out a solution. We can then have a cup competition like England has the FA Cup," Chhetri had told Firstpost earlier.
So as India prepare for their SAFF Cup final against Afghanistan, it will bring them momentary happiness and raise the hopes of a nation once again. But the stark reality facing football in the country is this: India needs one unified league, India needs to start winning their World Cup Qualifiers and India needs to pull off their first FIFA event (U17 World Cup) with fanfare, dignity and performances that inspire the next generation to play the world's most popular game.