Indian football is bridging key gaps

Unlike most the top European leagues, football in India has been very competitive this season

Pulasta Dhar
Updated2 Sep 2021
I-League champions Minerva Punjab. Photo: PTI
I-League champions Minerva Punjab. Photo: PTI

At the time of writing, Barcelona are 11 points clear at the top of the table in La Liga. Manchester City are already Premier League champions—16 points clear. Bayern Munich too are already champions—22 points clear on top in the Bundesliga. Paris Saint-Germain have also won the Ligue 1, with a 20-point lead.

None of these leagues is over. Depending on the country, a few games remain—but the championships have been decided.

There was no such luxury for teams fighting for the title in India though. At home, football is different—it is unpredictable, controversial, and beautifully frustrating. On the final day of the I-League this season, 40% of the teams had a chance to be champions.

The league was like a maze with multiple exits—and a gleaming trophy at the end of each. The possibilities for Minerva Punjab, Neroca FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were tantalizing, the permutations mind-boggling as just two points separated the top four teams. It was an unprecedented scenario. If hope is the very essence of life, then Indian football had never been this alive.

This was the second season in a row that the league kept everyone on the edge of their seats on the last match day. In the previous season, it was Aizawl versus Mohun Bagan, the former eventually winning the title to give the world of football another incredible underdog story.

This time, it was Minerva Punjab—scoffed at for their long-ball football and bullish attitude, but respected in the end for an achievement that could revive the sport in northern India. The state of Punjab has produced quite a few players for the national team—goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and defender Sandesh Jhingan being two examples—but this was the first time in 21 years that a club from the state had won the league title since JCT in 1996-97.

India’s striker Balwant Singh, who is also from Punjab, said Punjab football was “thankful” to Minerva for this achievement. Youngsters from the club have also made it to India’s U-17 World Cup team. It was the perfect conclusion—a title win based on determination and excellent scouting.

India is also in the unique position of enjoying two leagues.

In the Indian Super League (ISL), the top four teams play a knockout play-off to determine the champions. Bengaluru beat Pune City and Chennaiyin beat Goa to make it a clash of two southern titans for the trophy. But this ISL season was more about giving teams time to create an identity.

Apart from the common theme of having cut-throat finishers in attack, the final four deserved to be there not just for their performances but for their varied styles of football. If Bengaluru were fluid up front and solid at the back, then Pune City were the epitome of counter-attacking football. Chennaiyin relied on a powerhouse and inventive midfield and Goa were the most entertaining side in the league, scoring a whopping 42 goals in the league stage.

On points alone, Bengaluru finished eight points clear at the top of the table, but lost the final against Chennaiyin, who finished second in the league. It was a night that showed how thin the margins are in the ISL, that the favourites could finish without the title because they lost one game.

Football wasn’t done yet. The Super Cup would pit the top six teams from the I-League and the ISL in a tournament which many complained was pointless—but it wasn’t. Bragging rights in Indian football can sometimes mean more than a trophy. I-League’s purist fan base was savouring the thought of seeing its teams against those from the ISL. As it happened, five of the eight teams in the quarters were from the I-League.

Two of the last four were also from the I-League, and the final took place between East Bengal and Bengaluru. Social media was abuzz—with many calling the match one between two I-League teams, since Bengaluru had joined the ISL just before the start of the season.

The Blues won the game 4-1, but the gauntlet has been laid down. I-League teams were given the boost of competing with ISL teams, which are armed with higher budgets. The debate about the gap between the two leagues had festered for three years, but I-League teams have provided a new narrative for the argument.

If 2017 was the season of Aizawl’s fairy tale, then this one was about success in the face of uncertainty. It was about a team which had finished second from the bottom in 2017 becoming champions in 2018. It was about the ISL proving that with more time in the future, teams would develop a style fans could relate to.

It was about continuity in the face of adversity, about the sport mattering more than the administration, and about generating an excitement that will encourage children to take up the sport. This is exactly what Indian football needs.

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