A decade of growth sets up Indian football to score more goals

The birth of a professional tournament, women’s development and fresh legs were part of a vision to take Indian football forward.

For the Indian football team, the past decade - 2010-2020 - has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride.

It’s not an easy task to wake up a sleeping giant but when there is a vision and there is intention, the odds are not insurmountable. That’s been the story of Indian football as it continues to draw worldwide attention by not only hosting a glitzy professional league but by embracing the beautiful game across age groups and gender.

Here’s an extensive look back at what the past decade had in store for Indian football.

Two British coaches and a Chhetri

The Blue Tigers, perhaps, enjoyed their golden years from the late 1940s to the end of the ‘60s - a period which saw them participate in four separate Olympics and win two Asian Games gold medals.

From 1970 onwards, there was a steady decline and eventual limbo, until the turn of the new millennium.

Primarily driven by the two British head coaches - Stephen Constantine and Bob Houghton – there was a sustained toil to modernize the tactical aspects of the senior national team and the hard-work eventually bore fruit in 2008 with the AFC Challenge Cup victory.

The Indian football team rode a Sunil Chhetri hat-trick in the final to win the tournament and more importantly, qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup 2011 – Asia’s biggest continental football competition.

This, eventually, led the Indian football team into the next decade.

Through a footballing scope, the past decade can be divided into two parts – 2010-2013 being the experimental stage to tweak and reinvigorate the pipeline and 2014-20 focusing on execution.

India vs Australia in 2011 AFC Asian Cup
India vs Australia in 2011 AFC Asian CupIndia vs Australia in 2011 AFC Asian Cup

2010-2013: The experiment with Arrows

With the AFC Asian Cup 2011 in focus, which was to be India’s first appearance on the stage since 1984 and only second since 1964, there was one big step taken to rejig the internal structure feeding the Indian senior team.

The then Indian national football team’s head coach Bob Houghton realized he had an ageing squad in his hands and the team’s talisman Bhaichung Bhutia, a Padma Shri recipient, was in the twilight of his career.

For context, in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, the spine of the Indian football team, apart from goalkeeper Subrata Paul (then 24) and Sunil Chhetri (then 26), was over 30.

Striker Bhaichung Bhutia was 34, midfield generals Climax Lawrence and Syed Rahim Nabi, winger Renedy Singh, defensive mainstays Mahesh Gawli and Deepak Mondal, were all past their 30s at the time.

To add to the challenges, there was a lack of tested and proven youngsters breaking through due to lack of gametime for U-19 or U-23 prospects at the domestic club level.

In an attempt to address that, Bob Houghton proposed a youth team under the banner of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) which would take part in I-League. Christened as AIFF XI and later renamed Indian Arrows, the team was part of the vision to make the pipeline for talents to the senior team more robust.

End of Bhutia era and fresh blood

Drawn alongside Asian giants South Korea, Australia and Bahrain, India was unable to progress beyond the group stage, losing all three matches by a hefty margin.

After the AFC Asian Cup disappointment, Bob Houghton picked a young side, primarily made out of players from the Indian Arrows setup, for the AFC Challenger Cup 2012 qualifiers and successfully qualified.

Interestingly, Jeje Lalpekhlua, who impressed for the Indian Arrows in I-League 2010-11, was India’s top scorer in the qualifiers with four goals in three matches in his debut tournament for the senior team.

The momentum, however, died down after Bob Houghton departed shortly after that.

With Bhaichung Bhutia announcing his retirement a few months later, it marked the end of an era for the Indian football team.

The Indian Arrows setup, too, was consequently disbanded in 2013 but was a bookmark which would be later revisited.

Hitting bottom before ascent

From mid-2011 to 2013, the Indian football team did win the SAFF Championship 2011 under Bob Houghton’s full-time successor Savio Medeira but didn’t impress in the big tournaments.

In 2013, the Blue Tigers, then helmed by Dutchman Wim Koevermans, couldn't qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup 2014, consequently missing out on a chance to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup 2015.

The Indian football team participated in the Olympics 2012 Asian Qualifiers as well but couldn’t go past the second round.

On the back of some under-par performances over these few years and lack of matches in the first half of 2015, the Indian football team dropped down to 173 in the FIFA Rankings in April 2015 – their lowest-ever since the official rankings were formalized back in 1992.

2014-2020: ISL attracts the stars

The vehicle which would pull it back up, however, was already in motion.

On October 12, 2014, the first match of the Indian Super League (ISL) – a franchisee-based league – was played at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

The eight-team tournament, which was later extended to ten, proved to be a big boost for Indian football.

While the involvement of past global superstars like Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero, Luis Garcia and others gave the league pull initially, the clubs having strategic tie ups with big European clubs like Atletico Madrid and Fiorentina helped build up a more sustainable infrastructure in the long run, which would eventually go on to help the Indian football team.

More clubs and more matches only meant more game time for a larger pool of Indian football players, preparing them better for a transition to the national team.

As the league progressed, opportunities to work with foreign coaches and players only strengthened the Indian talent pool, with players like Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Anirudh Thapa and several others benefitting immensely both before and after breaking into the senior squad.

Constantine’s second innings

In parallel, Stephen Constantine, who was India’s head coach from 2002 to 2005, was brought back to helm the senior national football team and took charge in February 2015.

Under Constantine, the Blue Tigers, with captain Sunil Chhetri leading from the front, strung together a string of positive results, first reaching the second round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers in 2016.

Despite crashing out in the second round, the Indian football team secured a place in the third round for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualifiers after beating Laos over a two-legged playoff in 2016.

First Indian to score at a FIFA event

The highlight of the decade and Stephen Constantine’s second stint with India was the year 2017.

In July, the Blue Tigers rose to 96th in FIFA Standings, the nation’s best ranking on the FIFA leaderboard since 1996.

October saw India secure qualification to the Asian Cup 2019. The Indian football team remained unbeaten on the international arena throughout the calendar year.

India also hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup in October that year, marking its first appearance in a World Cup at any age level. Youngster Jeakson Singh netted India’s only goal of the tournament against Colombia, becoming the first Indian to score at a major FIFA event.

The Indian Arrows setup, too, was restarted the same year.

Lead up to the Asian Cup 2019

Approaching their second AFC Asian Cup of the decade, the Indian football team scored a fine triumph in the Intercontinental Cup 2018, beating Kenya in the final.

Then at the SAFF Cup, Stephen Constantine opted to field what was largely a U-23 squad and reached the final before going down to Maldives in the decider.

At the junior level, the India U-20 team made headlines after beating Argentina U-20 in the COTIF Cup 2018 in Spain. Despite being down to 10 men, the Indian colts braved through to secure a 2-1 win.

The Indian football team played three international friendlies towards the end of 2018, holding higher ranked China PR and Oman to goalless draws and narrowly going down to Jordan 2-1.

First win in Asian Cup in 55 years

Starting off with the big event in January, the Indian football team cruised to a 4-1 victory over Thailand in their opening match of the AFC Asian Cup 2019, with Sunil Chhetri bagging a brace. Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua scored India’s other two.

The victory marked India’s first win in the competition since 1964.

The Blue Tigers lost their second match but were in a chance to qualify for the knockout stages right till the final minutes of their last group engagement against Bahrain.

However, a late penalty crushed India’s dreams as they went down 1-0. A draw would have been enough to ensure progression.

Stephen Constantine vacated his post shortly after the loss.

Coach Igor Stimac’s era

In May, former Premier League defender Igor Stimac was brought in to fill the void left by Constantine.

Still adapting to the Croat’s system, the Blue Tigers have won one, drawn four and lost five of the 11 matches it participated under his reign.

Back in September 2019, however, the Indian football team registered one of its most famous results in recent memory, holding reigning Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw in their own backyard in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 joint qualifiers.

As of June 2020, India are ranked 108th in the FIFA Rankings, still 23 places better than their average of 131.

Indian women’s football team

Throughout the last decade, the Indian football women’s team has not only mirrored the progress made by their male counterparts but has moved forward with a steadier pace.

Since the turn of the decade, the Blue Tigresses have firmly established themselves as the dominant force in South Asia, winning five successive SAFF Women’s Championship titles. They have also won all three South Asian Games - 2010, 2016 and 2019 - held within the period.

On a larger stage, they created history in 2018, reaching the second round of the 2020 AFC Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the first time in their history after finishing second in Group C in the first round.

Needing to top their group in the second round of the qualifiers to progress, they narrowly missed out after finishing behind Myanmar in Group A based on goal difference.

Like the ISL helped the men’s team, the Indian Women’s League (IWL) – the first ever women's professional league – which started in 2017 has been a big shot in the arm for women’s football in the country.

The string of stellar performances has also seen several Indian eves attract attention from Europe and abroad.

While goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan turned up for West Ham Ladies in the FA Women's National League from 2015 to 2017, striker Bala Devi became the first Indian women’s player in history to sign a professional contract with a top European club when she signed for Scottish giants Rangers back in 2019.

Dalima Chhibber, too, has joined Canadian university team Manitoba Bisons.

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