Year in review: Indian football changed perceptions in 2017, but 2018 must see more tangible growth
Hosting a World Cup or rising in the FIFA rankings has helped Indian football grow in perception, but 2018 surely has to be the year where Indian football progresses in reality.
On 5 December 2013, India were awarded the rights to host the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, its first ever global football event of any stature. In early-2016, the AIFF proposed that 2017 could also see the long-awaited merger of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League — India's two premier football tournaments — leading to a bigger and longer domestic competition. The proposal was later reworked and a three-tier league system — also a first in Indian football's history — was put forward. So even before it began, 2017 was earmarked as the year in which Indian football would come of age.
Fast forward to the dying hours of what was perceived to be the most significant year in Indian football's history till date, the nation can look back in admiration at some path-breaking developments, and rue certain missed opportunities.
India's 'Cup of Good Hope'
The FIFA U-17 World Cup was undisputedly the main act of the year. It was the cup that was to provide Indian football the necessary push to satisfy its potential and make a mark on the global map of the sport. Apart from the participation of an Indian team in the World Cup for the first time, the event was a stern examination of the country's ability to host and organise an event of this magnitude.
In both aspects, India gave a good account of itself. On the pitch, India exited a tournament at the group stage without picking up a single point, but that wasn't a disaster by any means. In fact, the hosts exceeded expectations by staying competitive in all the three games they played. Despite facing pedigreed opponents like Ghana, USA and Colombia, the young Indians managed to keep their pride intact and almost nicked a point in the game against Colombia that saw the Jeakson Singh net India's first goal at a World Cup.
The Indian crowds matched up to their team's spirit off the pitch as they poured into the stadiums in large numbers. Games involving Brazil in Kochi were nothing short of a spectacle, as the Selecao received overwhelming support from the local crowd despite being miles away from home. Kolkata too turned up in large numbers to create an atmosphere worthy of the premium clashes like the semi-final and final the city hosted.
The 2017 edition in India became the most-attended U-17 World Cup of all time with the total attendance figures crossing 1.3 million, albeit due to seemingly dodgy match attendance numbers and the nation's huge population. The feat, nonetheless was one to be proud of.
"This environment of 50,000-plus crowd is unheard of in a development tournaments. The coverage, the atmosphere... We have not noticed that before in a development tournament back home in Europe in World Cups. It's exciting," England coach Steve Cooper was among the several admirers of the way the Indians hosted the cup.
As anticipated, the U-17 FIFA World Cup caught the eye of the local masses and quite actually helped football hog all the limelight, at least for the duration of the competition. The event portrayed India's's huge appetite for the game and generated the kind of momentum that Indian football needed in its transition from a non-significant entity to a noteworthy name in globally.
The non-merger and missed opportunity
The uncertainty over the domestic league structure grew as 2017 wore on. The AIFF and their stakeholders' struggle to strike a golden mean between the ISL and the I-League culminated in a compromised structure that saw the two leagues share the run time. The format opened up possibilities for younger players, coaches to test themselves at the top level, and the ISL's financial muscle meant that the I-League was virtually a second-tier competition.
The telecast quality of the I-League was improved with Star India taking over as the broadcaster. But with ISL getting the prime-time window, certain I-League matches had to be played at the 2 pm slot, a time of the day usually unsuitable for playing any kind of outdoor sport considering the climatic conditions in India.
The ISL grew in duration and size with two more teams — Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC — added to the fray, but the competition let the chance to lay down foundations for long-term development pass. Unlike what was expected with the tournament pushing towards being a proper league, only 18 percent of the total players involved were provided contracts that ran more than a year. Only certain teams invested in strengthening youth systems, and the ISL's expansion from a two-month long tournament to a more traditional league didn't quite materialise.
The AIFF missed a big opportunity to launch a revamped domestic structure for the long haul that would see the biggest clubs in the country playing in a single league, thus bringing all sets of fans into play under one roof. It would have also provided the players, coaches and all other parties involved, a longer duration in their jobs in a single year.
The new format, although an upgrade over the old one, failed to make the most of the momentum the U-17 World Cup had generated for the growth of football in the country.
Asian adventure beckons for Blue Tigers
For all the fanfare that the World Cup brought, Indian football's most crucial achievement in 2017 was qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The Blue Tigers reached the finals of the continental championship with a 4-1 win over Macau in October while continuing to lead the charts in Group A of the qualifying stage with 13 points from five games.
The Indian team had been on the rise ever since winning the 2015 SAFF Championship, but in 2017 the Indian team's performances became more assured with every passing game. India passed many stern tests in 2017 with the win over Myanmar in Yangon and the victory against Kyrgyz Republic in Bengaluru standing out. The victories highlighted India's new-found ability of grinding out results against strong opposition. The Stephen Constantine-coached side went through the year undefeated, stretching their unbeaten run to 13 games.
India broke into the top 100 in the FIFA rankings, with a rank of 96 in July. Although that was more a result of some smart thinking and astute use of mathematics on part of the AIFF, the significantly-improved ranking does also point to an upturn in performances of the team.
Sunil Chhetri and Co will have to face tougher challenges and will be tested a lot more in 2018 as they prepare for the Asian Cup, but 2017 had plenty to suggest that the team is on the right track for their Asian adventure.
What 2018 holds?
There's no World Cup to be hosted nor any serious qualification to be achieved in 2018. So the upcoming year will give the authorities plenty of time to finalise a domestic football structure. For India to formulate a sustainable footballing ecosystem in the country, a potent domestic league that produces players for the national team, provides sustainability to all parties involved is the need of the hour. With no distractions, the AIFF has to get that part right in 2018. Talks of a merged league have reappeared. An early start to a season spread across a greater time frame is believed to be a possibility in 2018. If this situation remains as said come the start of the new campaign, then there's reason to be optimistic.
Hosting a World Cup or rising in the FIFA rankings has helped Indian football grow in perception, but 2018 has to see progress in actuality.
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It was in November 2019 that the Blue Tigers last played at the international arena — in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers against Afghanistan (in Tajikistan) and Oman (in Muscat).
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