India’s football moment?
The country has been performing below its potential. Now it shows signs of recovery
In 1996, India achieved an all-time high in the men's global football rankings, achieving the 94th position there. India was not a global powerhouse in the world's most popular team sport, but great things were neverthesless expected of Indian football. After all, football was gaining in popularity in the world's second-most populous nation, and in States such as Bengal, Goa and Kerala, along with the seven sisters of the North-East. Football was clearly more popular than cricket in many regions of the country. Yet, what followed was years of stupor for football in India. Even though broadcasters like Star Sports beamed in live matches from the top football leagues in the world, Indian football collapsed. By March 2015, India ranked 174th in the global football rankings released by the sports governing body, Fifa. The dramatic climb of the past two years has been no small part due to an Englishman, Stephen Constantine, the coach of the senior men's football team in India. Also, due credit must be given to the popularity of the relatively recent Indian Super League (ISL) tournament which has brought professionally managed and marketed teams as well as increased foreign talent into the country, playing of which Indian players have improved their skills. Also, due credit has to be given to the JSW Group, which has created in Bengaluru FC, an Indian football team in the I-League that can compete with the best in Asia; it even reached the finals of the 2016 Asian Football Confederation Champions League — the premier pan-Asian club football tournament, defeating teams from far stronger leagues in Southeast Asia along the way.
The success of Aizwal FC in this year’s I-League, where this scrappy team from Mizoram beat all comers in Indian football's top league, was another great success story. With India about to host FIFA's U-17 World Cup in October this year, it would appear that Indian football has not just dragged itself out of the abyss but is on its way to scaling new heights.
Yet, challenges remain, not the least of which is the fact that the ISL and I-League are technically in competition with each other. The latter remains the premier football, according to the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) and takes place separately from the ISL, but the more flamboyant ISL with celebrity owners and full media backing has definitely gained the lion's share of eyeballs recently. But with the pot of money for Indian club football limited, two competing leagues cannot be the way forward. The process of merging the leagues is also fraught with issues, with AIFF officials unable to guarantee a spot to Aizwal in the new top division — a patently unfair move. Yet, the journey up the mountain for Indian football has started, and it shows that India can be successful in team sports outside cricket. And, Indian football fans need not be ashamed of their national team any longer.
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