The Indian Super League — the money-driven closed league — has been given the go-ahead in emerging as the country’s top league this season. The I-League — which was launched in the 2007-2008 season to bring professionalism in our football structure — has thus been made to survive in isolation.
Although AFC, while approving the All India Football Federation’s proposed road map, has been open to the ‘idea’ of two I-League clubs’ entry into the ISL at the end of the 2020-21 season, confusion persists with the ‘demand’ of traditional and legacy clubs’ assimilation in the new top league.
In a tale of haves and have-nots, financially strong ISL is the symbol of razzmatazz. On the other hand, without any concrete marketing and little money, I-League has in the past lost its association with several clubs, who were forced to shut shop. Despite legacy clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan playing in I-League, for top Indian players, ISL remains the preferred destination, because this is the league which unlocks the door to national team.
If the domestic football structure is passing through a transition, the national team’s performance on international stage continues to falter. The year, however, started with a bang, when Sunil Chhetri & Co. walloped Thailand 4-1 in their opening game of the Asian Cup in the UAE. However, heartbreaking losses to the hosts and Bahrain came in the way of India’s dream of reaching the knockout stage of the continental showpiece and eventually led to the end of Stephen Constantine’s stint as head coach.
In came high-profile Igor Stimac. India, under the former Croatian World Cupper, announced a statement of intent and promise by holding Qatar in their own den in an extraordinary match. India missed the veteran Chhetri’s service but saw goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu play probably the best match of his career.
However, old habits of failing to build on momentum continue to be their bane as back-to-back draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan have now put a question mark over the Blue Tigers’ direct qualification for the Asian Cup, let alone the second round of 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
The year has seen a renewed push for the development of women’s football, given that the country is going to host the under-17 women’s World Cup in November 2020.