Blue Tigers roar amid domestic confusion
It took India 172 minutes to get off the mark and end the wait of a lifetime.
As hosts of the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in October, it was the first time that the country was participating in the mega event in any age group.
In the 82nd minute of their second match against Colombia, the 6ft, 2 inches Thounaojam Jeakson Singh—the second tallest player in the team—leapt to head home Sanjeev Stalin’s corner and level the score at 1-1. The country rose with him in celebration. India had scored for the first time in a World Cup and Jeakson’s name would forever be etched in the history books.
A minute later, however, the Colombian team launched an attack and found the winning goal. Ecstasy turned to agony in one swift move on the football pitch. India would not score again in the World Cup.
Those 2 minutes of play were almost metaphorical of the new highs and lamentable lows Indian football experienced in 2017. While the Under-17 team and the senior national team represented India commendably, the All India Football Federation (Aiff) was entangled in political confusion and a possible rearrangement of the domestic league structure.
Ever since the inception of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014—driven by Aiff’s marketing partner IMG-Reliance’s Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL)—there has been a push for the cash-rich tournament to be made the country’s primary league instead of the decade-old I-League. Attempts to merge the two competitions also fell flat as legacy clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal failed to agree on franchise fees.
But in a fillip for the ISL, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) formally recognized it too as a top-flight competition. India now has two first-division leagues being held simultaneously, with the winners of each being granted spots in elite continental club events, though this is a temporary arrangement for the 2017-18 season.
“The I-League winner will get a quota for the AFC Champions League (play-offs),” said Aiff general secretary Kushal Das at the official launch ceremony. “Right now there is much more money in the ISL. But the legacy of Indian football is in the I-League. So we have to marry the two. We haven’t found the right solution yet.”
The winners of the ISL will be given a berth at the AFC Cup (equivalent to the Uefa Europa League), a spot previously reserved for the winners of the Federation Cup. Though both leagues have the same status on paper, the ISL is clearly the first among equals. It has the cream of the country’s footballing talent and the prime television spots. Even the I-League’s most consistent team in the recent past, Bengaluru FC, switched to the ISL as one of its two new teams: The brand new Jamshedpur FC, owned by Tata Steel, was the other.
The heroic efforts of Aizawl FC, which rose from the second division to win the I-League championship, were also quickly forgotten as the older league continued to recede in the ISL’s shadow.
In October, Aiff’s 2016 election was declared void as the governing body was found to have violated the National Sports Code. The Supreme Court later stepped in and appointed chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi as the Aiff administrator.
The silver lining in the Indian football playbook this year, however, was the progress made by the senior national team, the Blue Tigers. This was after the dismal qualifying campaign in 2015 for next year’s Fifa World Cup in Russia. At the time, coach Stephen Constantine was working with a team in transition. A host of youngsters had steadily emerged and were being awarded their first caps to determine the core squad—Constantine has awarded over 30 debuts since returning as national coach in 2015.
“The first round of qualifiers (for the World Cup), we learnt how to compete because we were not competing against anybody two years ago. We couldn’t even beat Nepal,” Constantine said in March, ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaign. “This year, we have to learn how to qualify.”
The young players are now accustomed to the pressure of playing in the national team. They asserted their new-found confidence to stitch together a 12-match unbeaten streak, and, more importantly, earn entry into the 2019 Asian Cup.
Sunil Chhetri, the captain, had talked about the pain of not making it to the 2015 Asian Cup. He led his team brilliantly past some tricky opponents to make sure there were no snags this time around. The 33-year-old scored eight goals and India currently top their group with four wins and a draw in five matches.
“It will be among the highest achievements. The memories of Doha 2011 will stay with me forever. It’s the top-most tournament in Asia and qualification was not just on my priority list but of the entire squad,” Chhetri said in November, referring to the team making it to the prestigious tournament.
“The top level of Asian football today is probably just a notch below the global elite. The top two-three teams in Asia, like Iran, South Korea and Japan, are, in fact, on par. Playing at such levels will help us gauge where we lie as a group. That is important as Indian football moves forward.”
The captain has been well supported by the likes of forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, defender Sandesh Jhingan, midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal. A 4-1 home win over Macau, the fourth of the campaign, saw India secure a berth in the continental tournament for the first time since 2011.
With the U-17 World Cup though, India hoped to leave a mark on the global stage. Preparations for the event began two years ago. Aiff employed the services of seasoned youth coach Nicolai Adam to mould the team. A nationwide scouting programme, headed by former international Abhishek Yadav, gave the German coach a variety of options before he selected his final 21.
The players spent two years touring and training in Europe, playing a series of matches against German Bundesliga youth teams along with a stint in Norway, where they played against the national team itself. Early in 2017, however, preparations were stalled by a players’ protest against Adam. Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia stepped in to pacify the players, who complained of “mistreatment”. Adam stepped down, and Aiff appointed former Benfica youth coach Luís Norton de Matos in his place.
India started their campaign with a 0-3 defeat against the US, though the youngsters did prove their fighting spirit. This was followed by the 1-2 loss to Colombia and ended with a 0-4 demolition by eventual quarter-finalists Ghana.
But the country earned praise for putting on a world-class tournament while the youngsters won hearts for their spirited showing, with all three matches being played in front of capacity crowds at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi.
The new ISL season, which began on 17 November, followed quick on its heels. The revamped league will now span five months. Teams will be required to field at least six Indian players at all times of a match, as opposed to five in previous seasons. The ISL has also made marquee players optional. With most teams choosing not to spend on legendary foreign stars, the cash-rich league may have lost one of its USPs, but can still boast of the best Indian talent.
Meanwhile, the I-League, which began with much less fanfare and media attention on 25 November, will provide another stage for India’s World Cup trailblazers. Members of the Under-17 national team will now play for the Indian Arrows (resurrected from the defunct Aiff-run Pailan Arrows) and will hope to hit a few more targets.
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