Many a battle were fought on the pitch of iconic Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi over the years. But the night on August 13, 2008, was truly historic.

On that day, local boy Sunil Chhetri struck a remarkable hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup final to take India to the 2011 Asian Cup finals after 24 years. As the capacity crowd cheered Bob Houghton’s men, many expected this rare title triumph to be India’s game-changer in the decade ahead.

It didn’t. Apart from stray successes, Indian football, at the end of 2020, is still hugely mediocre, having little or no impact at the continental level and full of cosmetic changes. In the last 10 years, beginning 2010, Indian football has been more in the news for being hosts or possible hosts of international events than performance on the ground.

In the last 10 years, the only area where India have performed consistently is at the under-16 age group. Not that they made an impression at the world level, but to qualify for the Asian under-16 championships final rounds on all but one occasion was no mean achievement. Given India’s standing at the Asian level here, it was perfectly right for Fifa to allow India host the 2017 Under-17 World Cup.

But then, to grow and mature are considered two key factors to succeed in the beautiful game. Unfortunately, India have failed to muster the tactics.

Age-group troubles

A step ahead at the under-19 level, India are a failure. Despite all the tall claims by the All India Football Federation about the progress the game has made in the country, not once in the last 10 years, India could qualify for the Asian under-19 championships – a clear sign that those who looked promising at 16, had somehow lost their way at the crucial juncture of their careers.

The problem in this area stood most exposed in 2017, less than two months after India hosted the under-17 World Cup. The Indian team for the World Cup received unprecedented support from both the government and the national federation. Coached by Luis Norton de Matos from Portugal, they were perhaps the most well-travelled side in Indian soccer history, played innumerable matches in a host of foreign countries as part of preparations.

That the team didn’t cross the first round hurdle in the World Cup wasn’t exactly a matter of great worry. But when 13 of these boys made the squad for the under-19 Asian qualifiers and still finished third in the group with just four points, it did raise some eyebrows. There wasn’t anyone to sit down and do a postmortem on what exactly went wrong after such extensive training programme.

In reality, the story remains the same as it was after India qualified for the Asian Cup in 2008. The breakthrough was certainly there, but it wasn’t put to proper use. True, India qualified for Asian Cup in 2019, thanks to yet another superlative show by Sunil Chhetri, but there, too, the campaign ended with a first round exit. The victory against tricky Thailand, India’s first in the final rounds after 55 years, was the lone bright spot.

Consistency had never been Indian football’s forte, whether on or off the pitch. At the senior level, at least three foreign coaches have come and gone. The sacking of under-16 coach Nicolai Adam a few months before the under-17 World Cup was questionable. Equally disappointing was the closure of age group academies in Mumbai and Kalyani after starting them with much fanfare.

But then, to put all the blame on authorities would be unfair. International football is a tough field, to get a footing there is enormously difficult, leave alone making a mark.

However, things could have been managed in a far better fashion at the domestic level.

Too many experiments and changes have hardly done domestic football a favour in the last 10 years. To launch a cash-rich league as a tournament purely for entertainment and then suddenly elevate it to the level of country’s prime meet could cost dear. The worse is the policy to discard merit and introduce a kind of “pay and play” scheme to be a part the top league could lead to disaster.

Well, to carefully choose oppositions (sometime weaker ones) and play to improve Fifa ranking is an international practice; India alone can’t be blamed. However, India’s recent results in the World Cup qualifiers have come as a shocker.

The celebrations over holding mighty Qatar to a draw took a backseat after disastrous draws against lowly Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Any question of India moving to the second round of World Cup qualifiers is now simply out of question. But if it also forces India lose their way to the Asian Cup, it could be a massive blow to Indian football in the next three years. No amount of public relations exercise would be enough to rescue it.

IM Vijayan on battling poverty, memories with national team and rejecting offers from foreign clubs

Lack of match-winners

The biggest problem, however, lies elsewhere. The inability to produce a good number of footballers having the quality to change the course of a match at the international arena is what hurt the national team most. In the 1990s and early part of the century, there were few like IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Renedy Singh, Bhaichung Bhutia, Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli, Climax Lawrence to take care in the middle when things were not moving in the right direction. The numbers have gone down drastically. So much so, national coach Igor Stimac had to request a particular footballer to come out of his retirement and don the national colours again. Not exactly a great sign for the game.

One second at a time: Reliving Sunil Chhetri’s mesmerising wonder goal against Kyrgyzstan

It brings back the memories of 2008 again. It was Chhetri’s hat-trick that paved the way for India’s qualification for the Asian Cup. Now, cut to 2017, it was Chhetri again, who struck crucial goals against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan to take India to 2019 Asian Cup. Having already scored 72 goals for the nation, one cannot expect him to continue the good work forever. Even in the ongoing ISL, the 35-year-old is — at the time of publishing this — the top scorer among Indians.

Why Sunil Chhetri is the finest match-winner in Indian football history

Two factors have contributed to this problem in the last 10 years.

One: the number of matches and competitions in domestic football have drastically gone down. And most importantly, to allow six foreigners (now five) to play in the starting eleven in the country’s top league is not in the best interest of Indian football. That the national federation has little control over these matters is a well-known fact now. So, the players like Vikram Pratap Singh, Rohit Danu or Ishan Pandita still will have to wait for the opportunity to showcase their skills.

Yet, at the same time, there are the likes of Liston Colaco, Aniruddh Thapa or Rahim Ali and few others, who have done enough to raise hopes. They are now youngsters but could soon develop into men for the future of the sport in the country. The fruits of their success could only be tasted in the coming decade.