For Indian football, much of what has transpired in 2017 can be boxed into the ‘Going sideways’ category.

If the Under-17 World Cup and Aizawl’s stunning title win catapulted the sport into public spotlight, albeit for a limited period of time, the conundrum of the two leagues saw no end as the new season sees the Indian Super League and the I-League play out parallel to each other.

The women’s game saw very little progress this year even if the national team did play Malaysia away in a friendly, their first in four years. The first-ever Indian Women’s League saw the participation of six teams, and was a curtailed affair after many ISL and I-League teams opted against fielding teams.

Jeakson Singh scores India's first-ever goal against Colombia. (image courtesy: AIFF Media)

World Cup as a reality check

For the many who claimed that India had ‘arrived at the world stage’ or had ‘won a billion hearts’, the standings provided another jarring reminder that progress on the pitch was a far distance away.

On the whole, the tournament did have the highest turnout of any U-17 or U-20 World Cup in history, as football enthusiasts did not pass up the chance to watch some quality football at their doorstep.

In their first game, the team lost 3-0 to the US in a match where the youngsters found out that the smallest of mistakes would be cruelly punished at that stage. The second, a 2-1 loss to Colombia, saw Jeakson Singh become India’s first-ever World Cup goalscorer.

A 4-0 humbling at Ghana’s hands brutally exposed the deficiencies of the team and the footballing structure in the country as the Africans ran riot in New Delhi. It was a game that could have ended with more goals to the visitors’ names but for the intervention of Dheeraj Singh.

With the World Cup over, the core of the team played the Under-19 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers but won one match out of the three, losing 5-0 to Saudi Arabia. They are currently participating as the Indian Arrows in the I-League, having won two and losing three out of their five matches at the time of writing.

Aizawl did it. Yes, really. (image courtesy: Aizawl FC)

Aizawl: Stuff that dreams are made of

Causing an upset or two and grinding out clean sheets resulting in penalty shootout victories may fetch you a tournament win but in a league format, upsetting the odds becomes that much tougher as the law of averages dictates that the cream will eventually rise up to the top.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can explain Aizawl’s barnstorming win in the I-League. They were supposed to be relegation certainties, having only been reinstated by the AIFF prior to the start of the season.

Khalid Jamil, sacked by Mumbai FC, was not supposed to become a title winning manager nor were his charges supposed to get winners’ medals. What followed was inexplicable, proof that football doesn’t always relate with logic.

As the gritty team from Mizoram kept punching above their weight, the wins started racking up and the unthinkable approached ever closer. Still, a heartbreaking last-minute 1-0 loss to Bengaluru FC meant that Aizawl had to beat the mighty Mohun Bagan at home to gain the upper hand in the title race.

When Zohmingliana ‘Zotea’ Ralte headed the ball home in the 83rd minute, the whole of Aizawl erupted in joy. They went into the final day, needing a point against bitter Northeastern rivals Shillong Lajong, for the title. Dipanda Dicka almost ensured that the dream came crashing down, his shot hit the post in injury time and 1-1 draw meant that little Aizawl had become champions of India.

In the immortal words of Martin Tyler, “I swear youll never see anything like this ever again.”

Khalid Jamil joins East Bengal after his Aizawl triumph. (image courtesy: East Bengal)

One country, two leagues

Yet, the AIFF’s plan to integrate only Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal from the I-League into a revamped top-league meant that Aizawl may have been relegated days after their victory.

With the two Kolkata clubs picking up bid documents, but against the franchise fee asked of them, the ISL expanded to a 10-team affair, as Bengaluru and a Tata-owned team Jamshedpur FC joined.

The I-League welcomed debutants Neroca and Gokulam Kerala while DSK Shivajians closed operations. The Arrows project made a return which meant that the I-League also had 10 teams.

With AFC and Fifa sending fact-finding missions to the country hoping to give recommendations for an unified league, both have made their stance clear that one league is the need of the day.

The absence of a pyramid structure for clubs to make their way to the top remains one of the major shortcomings of the Indian ecosystem. Without a plan for bottom-up movement in the food chain, more clubs can be expected to shut down in the face of stark indifference.

Eastern Sporting Union win the inaugural Indian Women's League. (image courtesy: AIFF Media)

Women’s league started, not much else

The inaugural Indian Women’s League featured six sides, as Pune City FC and Aizawl were the only two teams from the ISL/I-League to field teams.

Eastern Sporting Union won the title as Oinam Bembem Devi led the Manipuri team, marking her final appearance in competitive football. The 37-year-old also became the second Indian woman footballer to be awarded the Arjuna.

For the senior national team, they played four games in preliminary competition for the Fifa Women’s World Cup 2019, losing three games on the spin before a 2-0 consolation win over Hong Kong. Started in 1976, the senior team finally got its first woman coach, Maymol Rocky.

Goa started their own women’s football league, as the Panjim Dolphins emerged champions in a penalty shootout. In a year when Netherlands and Lieke Martens won the Euros as a result of a 101% increase in funding, women’s football remains severely underfunded and largely neglected.

The national team won seven, drawing two of their games this year. (image courtesy: AIFF Media)

Mission UAE 2019 the focus in 2018

Qualifying with two games to spare in the final round of qualifiers, India shall be taking part in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, eight years after their last appearance in the tournament.

A group containing Myanmar, Kyrgyz Republic and Macau was negotiated comfortably as the national team kept their unbeaten strike alive with seven wins and two draws.

They also reached a two-decade high of 96, as Sunil Chhetri climbed to fourth spot in the list of active international goalscorers, courtesy of some good goals, including a wonderful effort against the Kyrgyz Republic.

The tri-nation tournament without the services of Bengaluru FC, ended with India drawing 1-1 against the St Kitts and Nevis in Mumbai.

In the upcoming year, Stephen Constantine is expected to fine-tune his squad further as UAE 2019 approaches.