As 2019 comes to an end, in this series we take a look at the significant news events in different sporting disciplines in the past 12 months.
Indian football endured a difficult 2019 on multiple fronts with the national team’s underwhelming performance being at the forefront. Some incredible moments and results interspersed what was a largely disappointing year for the Blue Tigers.
The year saw a change of guard as Croatian Igor Stimac took over from Stephen Constantine as the national head coach.
On the domestic front, there was a lot of chaos as the All India Football Federation, with the approval of the Asian Football Confederation, certified the elevation of the Indian Super League as India’s top-tier league, subsequently relegating the I-League to the second-tier.
AFC Asian Cup
The year began with India’s AFC Asian Cup campaign as the team returned to the continent’s premier competition after eight years.
Constantine had injected fresh blood in the team with more than 40 players making their debuts during his reign and he was on the verge of guiding India to the first-ever knock-out round qualification in the Asian Cup in the UAE.
India outplayed Thailand, a technically sound team, in the first match to win 4-1 and register their first win in the Asian Cup finals after 55 years but later lost to hosts UAE and Bahrain 0-2 and 0-1 respectively to bow out of the continental showpiece.
India impressed with their performance against the hosts UAE but were made to pay for failure to convert their chances. A draw against Bahrain would have been enough for India to qualify for the knock-out round and script history but Constantine’s side conceded a penalty in the injury time to exit in heartbreaking fashion.
In the press conference after that game, a teary Constantine announced that he would step down as the manager after being in charge over four years.
Enter Igor Stimac
Stimac took up the reigns of the Indian football team in May becoming one of the most high-profile coaches to lead the national team.
He set about changing the playing style as the Blue Tigers adopted a more possession-based tactic from the direct approach under Constantine. However, in over six months at the helm, the Croatian has produced just one win – against hosts Thailand in Kings Cup in June – out of 10 matches.
The draw against Qatar in the World Cup qualifiers was a high point but the 1-1 draw against Bangladesh in front of a 60,000 crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata dampened the raised spirits in no time. Things got worse for India in the qualifiers as they only managed another draw in their next game against Afghanistan before falling to a tame defeat against Oman in Muscat.
With two losses and three draws, India are now out of contention for a next round berth in the World Cup qualifiers though they still have three more matches to play early next year.
Sunil Chhetri shines again
Amid the disappointment, captain and talisman Sunil Chhetri refused to slow down despite touching 35, perhaps playing his best football in the last couple of years. His effortless takeover of the mantle of Indian football’s poster boy from Bhaichung Bhutia was complete when he surpassed the Sikkimese Sniper in the number of matches played for India.
The Bengaluru FC forward contributed 50% of India’s goals in 2019, scoring crucial goals against Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup and also netting India’s opening goal against Oman in the World Cup qualifiers.
Chhetri went past Argentine wizard Lionel Messi (70 goals) in the international goal-scoring charts among active players to be second behind Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (99). The Indian captain has so far scored 72 goals from 115 matches.
Though Chhetri understandably brushed aside any comparisons with the two best footballers on the planet, Stimac described him as a “once-in-a-decade-or-two” player. His goal-scoring drought for the national team notwithstanding, it was another year where Chhteri showed why he is still the talisman (and left many wondering what next).
The tussle for the top-tier
The year did witness development of far-reaching consequences when the AIFF effectively relegated the 12-season old I-League (after 11 years as National Football League) to second-tier level in domestic club competition. The top slot was taken by the ISL which began in 2014.
After a long tussle between majority of the clubs on one side and the AIFF on the other, the national federation, after an intervention by the AFC, recognised ISL as the top-tier league in the country.
The battle between the clubs and the federation got ugly at times with the AIFF also slapping hefty monetary penalties on six I-League clubs – Aizawl FC, Churchill Brothers, NEROCA FC, Gokulam Kerala, Minerva Punjab and East Bengal – for boycotting the Super Cup tournament in March as a protest to their proposed relegation at the time.
However, the new pecking order was eventually accepted by all parties involved. The ISL-winning side will now get a chance to play in the continent’s top tier Asian Champions League qualifiers while the I-League winners will compete in the second-tier AFC Cup.
Chennai City FC and Bengaluru FC emerge winners
In the domestic competitions, Chennai City FC were crowned I-League champions ahead of Kolkata giants East Bengal with the winners decided on the final match-day.
Debutants Real Kashmir were in the title hunt till late in the league before clinching a superb third-place finish.
Bengaluru FC won the ISL after finishing runners-up last year to establish themselves as the foremost club in the country.
FC Goa, after continuing to play expansive football under Sergio Lobera, won the Indian Super Cup title in Bhubaneswar after beating Chennaiyin in the final.
The AIFF President Praful Patel made history by becoming the first Indian to be elected to the prestigious Fifa Council, the governing body of the world’s most popular sport.
India was also awarded the hosting rights of the Fifa Women’s U-17 World Cup in 2020. In their first major preparatory tournament under new coach Thomas Dennerby, India put up a good fight in their first two matches in a tri-nation tournament, losing the opener 0-3 against Sweden but bounced back with a 1-0 victory over Thailand.
In the final, the home side were clearly outplayed by Sweden in both attack and defense but Dennerby had plenty of positives to take home as the country can look forward to another Fifa World Cup to be held at home.
(With PTI inputs)