Plenty of gains for the beautiful game

India showcased its organising might by successfully hosting the U-17 World Cup

Plenty of gains for the beautiful game

Two years ago when Stephen Constantine took over as the head coach of the Indian team for the second time,  he had his task cut out - to ensure India qualifies for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.  

Having guaranteed his side's fourth appearance at Asia's flagship event this year, Constantine would be the happiest person in a year during which  Indian football had its own share of ups and downs.  

Clubbed along side Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau in the final phase of the qualifiers, there was little doubt about India making it past  this time. But what surprised many was the manner in which they negotiated the challenges, sealing their place with two games to spare and maintaining an unbeaten streak that now reads seven wins and two draws from nine games this year.

This run meant India reached a two-decade high of 96 on the FIFA rankings while their skipper Sunil Chhetri climbed to fourth spot in the list of active international goalscorers.

Away from the national team's exploits, India also ensured that they played perfect hosts when the brightest young talent around the world came down for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Though hosting the first-ever FIFA event meant Indians could finally cheer for a team of their own at a World Cup, that joy was restricted to three group-stage ties as the Indian colts bowed out after being convincingly beaten.

Grouped along with Colombia, Ghana and USA, there was barely any chance that India could challenge the superiority and the gulf in class was evident as the team led by Amarjit Kiyam hardly tested their opponents. Though Jeakson Singh became India's first-ever goal scorer in a World Cup when he nodded in a Sanjeev Satlin corner against Colombia, that was the only time the Indians stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their opponents as rivals teams didn't need a second invitation to punish India even for their smallest of mistakes.

The tournament, however, can be rubber-stamped as a resounding success as India collectively put their might behind it to showcase the football craze in the country.

Six stadia across the country viz. New Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata, Kochi, Goa and Navi Mumbai were revamped according to international standards while a host of training venues were built to accommodate the practice routines of the 24 participating teams.

The tournament also saw the highest ever turnout of any U-17 or U-20 World Cup in history, as football enthusiasts did not leave the chance to watch some quality football at their doorstep. The 2017 edition saw 12,80,459 spectators fill the stadia, surpassing the earlier record attendance of 12,30,976 set in the first edition of the tournament in China in 1985. England beat Spain in an entertaining final at Kolkata's Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan to lift their maiden title.

At the domestic level, Aizawl FC, a team nestled in the foothills on Himalayas, took the country by storm with their unwavering spirit as they marched their way to their first-ever I-league title.

Run on a shoe-string budget, not even Aizawl's strongest supporters would have imagined that they would wear the crown when the league finally kick-started after a number of Goan clubs decided to pull out owing to the lack of vision from the AIFF.

The pullouts meant Aizawl was reinstated in the top-tier league (Yes, they were not even suppose to be a part of the league initially!). The Mizo outfit roped in Khalid Jamil, a coach who had been sacked by Mumbai FC just weeks before for his 'lack of ambition', and Jamil stitched together a team with whatever he had and delivered the manner he knew the best.

Their win also meant AIFF's plan to merge the two leagues - I-League and the Indian Super League - was shredded to pieces. While the footballing body wanted Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to form the new top-tier league along with the eight existing ISL franchises, a top-tier league without the defending champions was not acceptable for anyone. This meant, the AIFF once again reached an agreement with the teams as India continues to see two leagues being played, but this time running concurrently.

The ISL welcomed Bengaluru and TATA Group-owned Jamshedpur FC into its fold while the I-League inducted Gokulam Kerala FC. NEROCA FC gained promotion while Indian Arrows was reintroduced, this time comprising of U-17 and U-19 boys.

The year also saw football great Ahmed Khan pass away. Khan, a two-time Olympian and the last from the "bare-foot" era, was also the last among the 'Panch Pandavas' that enthralled many in the East Bengal outfit. Khan was also nicknamed the 'snake charmer' for his ball control and beautiful dribbling skills.


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