I-League? ISL? Merged league? New league? 2016 was supposed to reveal all answers. But with three days left for the year to end, Indian football faithful are as clueless as a year ago regarding the future of the beautiful game in India.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has in the last twelve months paraded the idea of merging the two premier football competitions in the country – I-League and the Indian Super League – a number of times, but have given away few clues as to how this master plan will actually come into effect.
Amid all the growing uncertainty, there have been a few positives that 2016 had in store for Indian football. The biggest one came from Bengaluru, where the JSW-owned Bengaluru FC created history by marching all the way to the AFC Cup finals, a feat that no Indian club had managed to achieve before.
The Indian national team is all set to end the year with a ranking of 135, something the Blue Tigers failed to conjure up in the last six years. Kerala once again showcased their love for football by turning up in large numbers every time the Kerala Blasters played in Kochi. The frequent sight of the sea of yellow in the stands was some spectacle and provided hope that there were plenty of takers for the game in India.
Awakening, uprising, rebirth and what not! The AIFF didn't shy away from using these positives as markers of a new dawn in Indian football, but nothing apart from India's higher Fifa ranking is down to the apex football body in the country.
Moreover, those who have been observing Indian football closely would realise that the high Fifa ranking is not a true reflection of the team's pedigree. It only papers over the cracks left by a dismal showing in the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign where India managed just a solitary win and finished bottom of their group.
A win over a jet-lagged, jaded and highly depleted Puerto Rico side may have propelled India up the Fifa charts, but there is still plenty to be desired from the national team. However, to coach Stephan Constantine's credit, the national team now boasts a good crop of young players that may take Indian football to greater heights in the near future. But tougher tests and perhaps more real ones await Stephan Constantine's boys in 2017. If, and only if, these young boys pass those tests and keep India's dream of qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup alive in 2017, one may begin to entertain talks of an improvement in the national side.
At the club level, things have been quite downhill. Dempo, Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar decided to pull out of the I-League that led to a possibility of the football-crazy state of Goa not having representation in the I-League, until the league restored Churchill Brothers to avoid that circumstance.
While that has opened the door for new teams like Minerva Punjab FC and Chennai City FC, it remains to be seen if these sides can match up to the expected quality of the league. Aizawl FC who were relegated from the I-League last season, but made a stellar run to the Federation Cup final, too were reinstated in the competition to make up the lost numbers.
The AIFF and the I-League have blamed the Goan clubs for struggling to sustain a fan base, and have cited that as a reason for them to pull out from the league. While that might be true, one also has to point fingers at the I-League for failing to market the league as it is required.
The new season is less than ten days away and one can hardly see any kind of promotion on any platforms. So if a competition is badly marketed, it is not easy for every club to build and sustain a fan base as there isn't enough buzz among the public about a certain competition.
The Goan clubs could have done things differently to be in a much better situation, but the AIFF's reluctance to help those clubs address their issues isn't the best thing for Indian football. There are few stakeholders for Indian football and those few that have contributed towards the game in India, must be treated with a bit more respect and efforts should be made to solve their problems instead of turning the back on them. A country like India where football is still finding it's feet, there needs to be an united front to provide a catalyst for its growth. The apex body must acknowledge this fact before we lose some of these football-loving people.
Amidst all the muddle, Bengaluru FC scripted their own fairytale, setting up a perfect precedent for Indian football caught in perplexity. Losing the likes of Sean Rooney and Robin Singh was hardly a start that the Blues would have hoped for, but their philosophy to put faith in the younger lot paid dividends yet again.
While it was Eugenson Lyngdoh who rose to prominence in the 2015 I-League season, 2016 saw the the likes of CK Vineeth, Udanta Singh and Daniel Lahlimpuia come into the limelight with some top notch performances. If regaining the I-League crown was commendable feat, their run to the AFC Cup final, despite a mid-season managerial change highlighted the solid foundation of the club.
Going into the new campaign, Bengaluru have retained their core group of players while adding a few notable names like Harmanjot Singh Khabra and Mandar Rao Dessai to their ranks. Don't be surprised if there are a couple of youngsters that step up during the course of next season, like they have always done in the club's short yet illustrious history.
Club captain Sunil Chhetri has made no reservations while expressing his side's ambition for the upcoming season and the Blues from Bengaluru have their sights set not just on retaining their I-League crown, but also going a step further in the AFC Cup by lifting the trophy this time.
Bengaluru FC have earned their name as the most professionally run clubs in India and Chhetri believes that the clarity and unity among the club about it's objectives distinguishes them from the rest. "We are doing the right things, trying our best, all of us are in sync, from owner Sajjan Jindal to the ball boy," Chhetri told reporters at the launch of the 2016/17 I-League in New Delhi.
It is this synchronisation between the hierarchies that's helped create a truly wonderful set up and one that every other club, old or new should be looking to reciprocate at their respective ends.
One can also find similar cohesion at Atletico de Kolkata who, despite having to play for only three months in a season, managed to retain a big chunk of their squad, while also add to it so that they possess sufficient depth. The result is there for all to see as they won their second ISL title in three years.
An unified and a bigger league is the need of the hour and there is a clear unison regarding the same, but substantial steps needs to be taken for its realisation, taking all stakeholders of Indian football together.
The year 2016 has left more questions than answers for Indian football, but in Bengaluru FC there is a compelling blueprint which, if replicated, can turn the fortunes of the sport in the country.
Updated Date: Dec 29, 2016 10:03:35 IST