India’s national football scene has gone through a topsy-turvy journey over the past one year – ranging from an established coach stepping down unceremoniously in a post-match press conference to the national football federation springing a surprise replacement months later.
However, despite the upheaval, the year has ended with hope for the Blue Tigers.
A Thunderous Start
It’s not every day that a match report of the Indian national football team gets covered by publications around the world. But when India defeated Thailand on January 6 this year, it was significant.
Not only did the Blue Tigers record their first win at the Asian Cup finals since 1964, but their celebrated skipper Sunil Chettri had overcome Lionel Messi to become the second highest-scoring active international player.
Chettri had scored on both sides of the half time and with Jeje Lalpekhlua and Anirudh Thapa further adding to the tally, India ran a 4-1 riot on Thailand and took a huge step towards qualifying in the knockout stages.
In the process, Chhetri took his tally to 66 goals, one more than Messi with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo sitting atop with 85 goals.
The End of the Beginning
Despite the glorious start on the continental stage, India couldn’t really capitalise on it. Sunil Chhetri and Co. went on to lose 0-2 and 0-1 to UAE and Bahrain respectively and fell out of the group stages, thus bringing an end to the dream.
A draw would have been sufficient for India to qualify but they conceded a goal at the 91st minute and bowed out of the tournament. Following the heartbreak, manager Stephen Constantine announced his retirement from the position, thus bringing an end to his four-year stint.
The talent pool that is ISL
The timing of Constantine’s resignation coincided perfectly with the 2018 edition of the Indian Super League, which threw up a plethora of talents. The fifth edition of the tournament, which ran until March 2019, saw players such as Sahal Abdul Samad, Ashique Kuruniyan, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Brandon Fernandes, Narender Gehlot, Nishu Kumar and many others coming to the fore.
The general perception that had started creeping in by the end of the Indian Super League in March, felt not only by fans but also by the federation, was that it was time Indian football started handing chances to emerging youngsters. This ray of hope also demanded the appointment of a coach and a technical director at the helm who could rebuild a foundation that had the blend of both quality to sustain the fans and efficacy to bring results.
A new regime
Keeping this new vision in mind, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) brought in Romania’s Doru Isac as their new technical director. The former technical director of Japanese club Yokohama F. Marinos ushered in a buzz of excitement because his resume included being assistant to the legendary Arsene Wenger from 1997 to 2002 in the Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight. With him focusing mainly on youth development, it was time to bring in a high-profile national coach to work in tandem with the technical director.
With exciting and proven managers like Albert Roca, Sven Goran Eriksson, and even Sam Allardyce in the reckoning, AIFF chose to get in an unknown Igor Stimac at the helm. Contrary to popular choices, the former Croatian manager was selected for his brilliant presentation during the interview and it wasn’t really taken well by the football fans. But, AIFF was sure Stimac was the right man to take India to the 2023 World Cup.
The term ‘roadmap’ got much traction in 2019, with the AIFF having relentless debates with I-League clubs about the ISL being on the brink of becoming the first-tier league with the I-League getting demoted to second tier.
The oldest football league in the country went to the top officials to solve the mayhem, and it was only in October that the Asian Football Federation (AFC) and AIFF came up with a roadmap that finally brought peace. Recognising Indian Super League as the country’s premier competition, it was decided that the ISL winners would be getting the AFC Champions League status and the I-League winners, the AFC Cup.
Apart from that, the ISL was directed to take in two I-League clubs by the end of the 2020-21 season and from the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons, the I-League champions would be getting promoted to the ISL with no participation fee and by 2024-25, the parallel Indian league would function as the conventional promotion and relegation system.
Slow but progressive Stimac
Igor Stimac has been handed a tough task in steadying the mast of the Indian ship, which has weathered a lot of storms. And the Croatian did a great job initially, handing opportunities to most young talents in his preparatory camps ahead of the tournaments.
But, an empire isn’t built in a day and both the fans and Stimac would have to endure a lot before results are seen. And India’s ongoing run at the World Cup qualification has been the perfect example of it. India has drawn thrice and lost twice in the five matches they have played so far, but anyone with eyes of their head would agree that they have been on the right path.
While Constantine was a lover of long balls, having towering and aerially good forwards in his side, Stimac has tried to work on a different philosophy having the players to play more passes in the buildup.
The slow transformation has taken its own time making the fans impatient but positive results such as eking out a goalless draw in the backyard of the World Cup hosts, will keep the flickering hope alive.