The plan for Igor Štimac was to have the Indian national team playing up to ten friendlies in Europe this summer. It would have been sixty years since Syed Abdul Rahim’s men impressed many with their performances at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Italy and having confined themselves mostly to Asia in the intervening years, a glorious opportunity for our players to further their footballing education presented itself.
Alas, it was not to be as COVID-19 continues to dominate our lives and conversations. With FIFA announcing that it does not expect any international football to be played this year, the Croatian’s ideas have been cast aside for now. Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will have to wait as well.
Štimac came in at the beginning of the season, looking to build on a promising Asian Cup campaign. The criticism of Stephen Constantine was that he always took the pragmatic route and while the new manager promised more entertaining football, his wards have since shown that the former gaffer was onto something. India’s best performance this past year, a 0-0 in Doha against the current Asian champions, was a backs-to-the-wall effort reminiscent of the Englishman’s time in the country. Without midfield players who can impose themselves on a game, proven goal scorers and Sunil Chhetri showing signs of decline, the playing revolution is still some way off.
Having failed to qualify for the 2020 AFC Championships, the U-23 squad did not figure in a single fixture all year. Much was expected of the U-19 team but after playing a lot of games in Russia, Turkey, Vanuatu and Nepal in the build-up, Floyd Pinto’s wards disappointed at the AFC U-19 qualifiers in Saudi Arabia. The U-16s have been a source of joy in recent years and they made their exposure tours count by qualifying for the AFC U-16 Championships. Bibiano Fernandes’ boys will be hoping to better their quarterfinal appearance in the last edition if the tournament goes ahead in Bahrain this September.
On the women’s side, there is definitely a concerted effort by AFC and FIFA to bring global tournaments to India. The U-17 Women’s World Cup will be held in the country next year after the COVID crisis necessitated a postponement. The Asian Football Confederation has also decided to award the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup to India, in the process guaranteeing our national team a first appearance in the tournament since 2003. The performances have slowly picked up, as was evidenced at the COTIF Cup in Spain where the team placed third. They were widely lauded for the improvement shown from the previous year and decent showings in Uzbekistan and Vietnam followed. The road ahead is long and arduous though and this year’s edition of the Indian Women’s League showed why.
The U-19 team has not been in action since 2018 with the attention being focused on India’s preparation for the U-17 World Cup. A squad is being built by the Swedish coach, Thomas Dennerby, and the young girls involved have been to Hong Kong and Turkey over the last year to prepare for the big stage. In December, they got a chance to play Sweden and Thailand in a preparatory tournament in Mumbai. While the Thais were overturned, the two games against Sweden ended in heavy defeats and provided an indicator of the scale of challenges that await our young team next year.
On the domestic front, a topic that dominated a good portion of last year’s feature finally came to a resolution. The battle between India’s top two leagues had festered for years and after the AFC finally put their foot down, a plan was presented by the AIFF which was approved in October. The ISL is now officially the country’s first division but the I-League winners can join from the 2022-23 season onwards without paying a participation fee. It will also be an open league from 2024-25 with promotion and relegation kicking in.
The league ecosystem is still a fragile one though and the after-effects of these changes will only be known in the long term. In the ISL, FC Pune City closed down operations this season and a new entity in Hyderabad FC were formed in their place. Delhi Dynamos were rechristened as Odisha FC after life in the capital proved difficult. Mumbai City FC were bought by the City Football Group mid-season as part of their global expansion and with their finances and Sergio Lobera at the helm, the Islanders should be firm contenders for the title next season.
Unlike the ISL, which just about managed to complete its season, the I-League was curtailed due to COVID-19 and Mohun Bagan were crowned champions. With the club merging with ATK, a decision needs to be taken on who would replace them in the AFC Cup next season. In typical fashion, it promises to be a mess.
In April, disillusioned with the way Indian football functions, Minerva sold its entire stake in Punjab FC to RoundGlass Sports. In the same month, Quess East Bengal dropped a bombshell on its players by using a ‘force majeure’ clause to terminate their contracts. Quess Corp also formally ended its ties with East Bengal. This has, however, not stopped the club from being active in the transfer market among renewed speculation that they will join the ISL next season. Chennai City FC are also rumoured to be in talks to buy two-time ISL champions, Chennaiyin FC.
With the I-League second division undecided, it also remains to be seen how promotion to the first division plays out with Delhi-based Sudeva FC keen on coming in from the cold and joining the league as well. I-League CEO, Sunando Dhar, has a task on his hands and expect matters to be sorted the way they always are in that league. Arbitrarily.
Among other traditional tournaments which once held pride of place in the Indian calendar, the Durand Cup (oldest football tournament in Asia) moved out of Delhi for the first time since 1940 and was played in West Bengal in August. Gokulam Kerala emerged victorious beating sixteen-time champions, Mohun Bagan in the final. The final round of the Santosh Trophy, scheduled to be played in Aizawl, was postponed in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. There was talk of the IFA Shield (second-oldest football tournament in Asia) coming back as a senior tournament in April but nothing materialized. The much-reviled Super Cup got a boot this year as well after only two seasons.
The manoeuvring involved in Indian football keeps the head spinning in the best of times. In a post-COVID world, expect nothing to change.