Indian football team’s captain Sunil Chhetri raised the bar among his counterparts, however, thanks to early exits from the World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup besides an 11-position drop in FIFA rankings, the team as such has not had a memorable year.
The year did witness a development of far-reaching consequences when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) dumped 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 cash-rich but much younger Indian Super League 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 Asian Football Confederation, recognised ISL as the top-tier league in the country. The ISL-winning side will now get a chance to play in the continent’s top tier Asian Champions League while the I-League winners will compete in the second-tier AFC Cup.
On the positive side, 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.
India began the year on 97 in FIFA rankings, but after two wins, four draws and seven losses, the country ended 2019 at 108. The biggest takeaway, though, was the goalless draw against reigning Asian champions Qatar in Doha in a 2022 World Cup qualifiers match.
A high profile coach in the form of Croatian Igor Stimac, a 1998 World Cup bronze-winner, was appointed after Stephen Constantine resigned following the Asian Cup in January but India’s football fortunes remained unchanged.
Amid the ruins, captain and talisman 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.
Chhetri then did the unthinkable as he 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 brushed aside any comparisons with the two best footballers on the planet but Stimac described him as a “once-in-a-decade-or-two” player.
Stimac’s predecessor Constantine had injected fresh blood in the team with more than 40 players making their debuts 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 but later lost to hosts UAE and Bahrain 0-2 and 0-1 respectively to bow out of the continental showpiece.
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.
Stimac changed the playing style from a mostly long-ball system to short-passing possession football, but 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 was an utter disappointment, made worse by the fact that India equalised just two minutes before regulation time.
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.
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 settling for a third-place finish. Bengaluru FC won the ISL after finishing runners-up last year to establish themselves as the foremost club in the country.
In other events that hogged the headlines, the I-League match between Minerva Punjab and Real Kashmir in Srinagar was cancelled in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack on February 14.
The AIFF also slapped 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.
(With inputs from agencies)