Indian Football: Off the sidelines and into the spotlight

The sport has struggled to crack the mainstream for decades, but the horizon has begun to look brighter over the latter half of the past decade.

Football is one of the most widely followed sports around the world but in India, the beautiful game has struggled to gain the same foothold as cricket or even kabaddi. However, the latter half of the current decade has seen promising seeds get sown with the hopes of eventually turning India into a force to reckon with.

These include the rise of the Indian Super League (ISL), along with the efforts of the I-League as well as the rise of football fervour in the north-eastern states, almost matching the level of interest earlier seen in bastions of the sport such as Goa, Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal.

The Constantine effect

One of the primary benefactors of this upsurge has been the Indian national football team. From languishing in the lower rungs of the FIFA rankings five years ago to making it to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the Blue Tigers have come a long way in the past few years.

The journey began in 2015 when Englishman Stephen Constantine was handed the reins of the Indian football team for the second time, just ahead of the qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. What started with a scrappy win over Nepal in the preliminary round was soon turned into a nightmare, as Constantine’s men found it difficult to battle against recognised names in Asian football.

While the likes of Iran, Oman and Turkmenistan proving their mettle against India and notching up comfortable wins, a loss to Guam - a nation with a population of under 200,000 - was morale-shattering for the team.

Keeping the faith

But despite the critics calling for Constantine to be sacked after a dismal show in the World Cup qualifiers, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) chose to stick with the Englishman as India began its quest to make it to the Asian Cup after a gap of eight years.

It was here that the Indian football team turned the tide as they went on a 13-game unbeaten run and qualified for the continental competition only for the fourth time in their history. This period also saw Constantine overhaul the face of the team as he roped in young talent, paid extra emphasis on fitness and ensured that his side was ready for the fight when the AFC Asian Cup came along.

With the experience of Sunil Chhetri, the highest goal scorer for the country, by their side and the exuberance of youth, the Indian side went on to surprise a few with their show in UAE 2019.

A thumping win over the rising powerhouse of Asian football Thailand was followed by narrow losses to hosts UAE and Bahrain as the Indian football team returned home from the group stage. But the journey did help them stake a claim for themselves as a talented unit, a trend we are continuing to witness this time too.

Now, with Croatian coach Igor Stimac at the helm since May 2019, India are embarking on qualification for the Qatar World Cup in 2022 and taking the next steps in their evolution.

Be it their gritty performance against the next hosts, a match that saw India hold the reigning Asian champions to a goalless draw in Doha, or their spirited show against Bangladesh, the Indian football team has time and again shown signs of producing results even in adverse situations.

Domestic efforts

While the national team has shown some quality improvement in their performance in the past few years, one can’t discount the efforts taken back home to improve the domestic structure of football in India.

With the I-League, the domestic league of the country, failing to garner enough interest among the masses, the AIFF along with its commercial partners IMG-Reliance announced a new football league in 2013 with an aim to improve the quality of the game both on and off the field.

Based on the proven franchise model of the Indian Premier League, India’s premier Twenty20 cricket competition, the Indian Super League (ISL) was launched in October 2014.

The financial stakes were raised significantly, making the ISL a viable avenue for sporting youth to eye it as a career, as players often raked in over a crore at the auction. Moreover, with top global names like Roberto Carlos, Diego Forlan, Alessandro del Piero and Robert Pires taking the field, the move not only helped attract crowds in-stadia but also helped the Indian footballers learn the nitty-gritty of the game from proven stars.

Land of fairytales

While there’s no denying the ISL and the impact it has had on bringing people to the playing venues and creating a buzz about Indian football, the I-League has still been the place that has given us stories to cherish.

Be it a club nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Aizawl FC, or the one which was born out of sheer passion for the game, Minerva Punjab FC, or another run on a shoe-string budget, Chennai City FC, the winners in the I-League have often, in the past few years, seemed to produce some fascinating storylines for the Indian football romantics.

However, though their success has helped them grab national headlines, it’s barely been enough for them to survive in an environment where the odds are largely stacked against them. These teams today act as the feeder clubs for the cash-rich teams in the ISL with a hope of making it big once again with their determination.

Whether it’s a fair compromise can be debated for days, but for the passionate Indian football fan who dreams of seeing his countrymen mixing it up with the likes of Lionel Messi and Virgil van Dijk one day, the road to a stable future can only be a welcome sight.

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