Bengaluru FC shine in another dull year for Indian football

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Bengaluru FC’s runners-up finish at the AFC Cup was a rare moment of glory in what was another year of discontent for Indian football even though the national team climbed to its best FIFA rankings in the last six years.

Just three years into their existence, Bengaluru reached the summit clash of the AFC Cup, the continent’s second tier club competition, eventually losing to Air Force Club of Iraq (1-0) to finish as runners-up.

Despite the loss, Bengaluru became the first Indian club to qualify for the final of a continental tournament. Before this, the farthest an Indian club had advanced in a continental tournament was the two AFC Cup semifinal appearances by Dempo in 2008 and East Bengal in 2013.

If Bengaluru’s exploits were the highlights, the low points were India failing to advance beyond the second stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and even worse, they had to face the ignominy of having to compete in a play-offs round to take part in the qualifying tournament of 2019 Asian Cup.

In domestic wranglings, Goan clubs Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar pulled out of the I-League to protest against a proposal of the All India Football Federation to make the Indian Super League (ISL) the country’s official top competition.

Two new clubs in Chennai City FC and Minerva Punjab FC were added to the I-League which begins next month.

On the positive side, India won the SAFF Championships for the seventh time and then jumped to the highest FIFA rankings in six years (135th). Also, yet another successful ISL season saw Atletico de Kolkata lift the title for the second time in three years.

On the administrative front, national senior team coach Stephen Constantine was handed a year’s extension after the end of his two-year contract while Praful Patel was re-elected AIFF President for his third consecutive term. He was also made AFC senior vice-president earlier in the year.

The country also embarked on frantic preparations for the Under-17 FIFA World Cup next year. Six venues were picked to host the matches after inspections by FIFA representatives.

The year began with India clinching the SAFF Championships, a regional tournament which the country has made its own.

The national team has won the event seven times and featured in all but one summit clash in the 11 editions so far. This year, the side clinched the top honours beating a spirited Afghanistan 2-1 in the final in Thiruvananthapuram.

Pakistan did not take part in the tournament due to internal issues.

Reality soon struck after the SAFF success as India endured a disastrous campaign in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which also served as the joint qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup.

They ended their campaign at the bottom of the five-team Group D with just three points after a lone win (from eight matches) over Guam. India eventually lost to Guam, a Pacific Ocean country with less than two lakh people, in their away-leg match.

With a bottom-placed finish in the campaign, India had to compete in a play-off round to even find a place in the qualifiers of the Asian Cup. The country did eventually make it to the qualifying round of 2019 Asian Cup after beating Laos in both the home (6-1) and away (1-0) legs.

Head coach Stephen Constantine came under the scanner after the disastrous show in the World Cup qualifiers but he was saved by India’s international friendly win (4-1) against higher-ranked Puerto Rico in September.

A rise in India’s FIFA rankings to 137th, the best in six years, after the Puerto Rico win also went in favour of Constantine who was handed a one-year extension to his contract, giving him a chance to prove in the Asian Cup qualifiers to be held in March next year.

On the domestic front, the squeezed I-League 2015-16 yet again failed to catch the eyeballs even as Bengaluru FC lifted the title for the second time in three years after their first in 2013-14. They had finished second in 2014-15.

Bengaluru’s domestic success spilled over to the Asian stage and they became the first Indian club to feature in the final of a continental tournament.

They did not begin spectacularly in the AFC Cup and lost to defending champions Johor Darul of Malaysia twice in the group stage. Ashley Westwood left the club after guiding the ‘Blues’ to I-League title and Spaniard Albert Roca, a former assistant to Frank Rijkaard at FC Barcelona, took charge.

That Westwood had built the foundations of a very good team was evident when after Roca’s arrival, Bengaluru went from strength to strength and even held defending champions Johor in Malaysia and then beat them in Bengaluru in the two-leg semifinals. Captain Sunil Chhetri scored one of his all-time best goals to seal the deal.

Bengaluru created history but they came short in the summit clash and Air Force Club of Iraq outplayed them in a lacklustre final in Doha. Roca’s side will now play two rounds of play-offs to qualify for the AFC Champions League, the top tier club competition of Asia.

Meanwhile, Indian Super League entered its third season and yet again made a splash with thousands turning out at the stadium, especially at Guwahati, Kochi and Chennai.

As has been the trend in the last three years, arguably the shortest league in the world, the fourth most watched also, was intensely-contested among the eight teams with the league stage going down the wire.

Delhi Dynamos and Mumbai City FC were in the top two of the table for the longest time and they seemed to be best sides with flourishing football and lots of goals.

But Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters met in the summit clash at the Nehru Stadium in Kochi in front of 55,000 spectators with the Kolkata side walking away victorious via a penalty shootout.

It was Sourav Ganguly’s team again having the last laugh over Sachin Tendulkar’s side just like in the inaugural 2014 edition final.

The year also saw two I-League clubs pulling out of the top division after the AIFF floated the plan to overhaul the Indian domestic football structure.

The three season-old ISL is to be made the first tier, with two or three clubs added to the existing eight, while the I-League and second I-League forming the League l and League 2 respectively.

The format and starting season for the new structure are not yet clear but Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa pulled out of the I-League beginning on January 7 in protest against these proposals. Two clubs — Chennai City FC and Mienrva Punjab FC — were added to I-League after a bidding process to make it a 10-team league.

AIFF chief Praful Patel was elected unopposed for his third term (2017-2010) in the election which was in doubt for a few days after Delhi High Court’s stay. But after the HC vacated the stay, Patel and all 16 other office-bearers were declared elected unopposed at the AIFF’s Annual General Meeting.

The country also began preparation in right earnest for the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup and picked six venues in Guwahati, Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Kochi to host the matches.

Despite support from the government, the progress report regarding the addition of new facilities at the stadia and preparation of training pitches has not been without issues.

All these will have to be ready soon as the mega event will be held in October.

India hosted the 2016 Under-16 AFC Championships in Goa and the national team, made up of players who are likely to play in the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup, failed to advance beyond the group stage, losing two matches and drawing one.

FIFA chief Gianni Infantino made a brief visit to the country, the first after taking charge of the world body, during the AFC’s extraordinary congress in Goa.

Outside the country, the year witnessed the tragic death of almost all the players of the Brazillian club Chapecoense in a plane crash in Colombia. They were to play in the finals match of Copa Sudamerica, South American football’s secondary continental competition, against Atleticao at the Colombian city of Medell n.

It was also heartbreaking year for superstar Lionel Messi as he missed out on a major title yet again when Argentina lost to Chile in the Copa America final in a penalty shootout with Messi himself missing from the spot. Messi retired immediately with emotions high but returned in Argentina colours after two months.

His arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo, however, had a great year as his Real Madrid clinched the UEFA Champions League title.

He also inspired Portugal to their maiden Euro Championships title, and the world’s top individual football award Ballon d’Or expectedly went to him. He ended the year in style with a hat-trick against Kashima Antlers to help Real Madrid clinch the Club World Club trophy in Japan.

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