As 2021 winds down, it is time to review, how Indian football fared in the last 12 months and look ahead to how Indian football can move on a path of progress.

Over a year, we have witnessed limited actions on the pitch as pandemic induced lockdown and limited resources in the system outplayed the passion and dreams of grassroots and youth players across India. Inspite of these challenges there were some individual and collective brilliance, on and off the field of play. Overall performance of the National Team was not inspiring as we once again fared miserably in the World Cup 2022 qualification round. Though women’s national team have shown some spark and 2022 is going to be the big push year for women’s football in the history of women’s football in India.

Sunil Chhetri remains the talk of town

Sunil Chhetri has been delivering season after season. Blue Tigers captain was once again the top performer of 2021 by some distant. The Arjuna Awardee entered his name in the record books by scoring his 80th international goal in the rescheduled South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship that was held in the Maldives in October. It was icing on the cake as he scored against Nepal in the final.

Chhetri was also the first Indian footballer to receive the prestigious Khel Ratna Award in 2021, another important moment in Indian football history.

At 37, Chhetri is still the face of Indian football. His performance on and off the field inspires the next generation of players. It will be wonderful if Chhetri is able to sustain his efforts in 2022 for the national team. Though Padma Shri Sunil Chhetri still to start his goal scoring machine in the 8th ISL season but we can expect him to deliver for his beloved club, Bengaluru FC in 2022.

Regional success

India won the SAFF Championship for a record eighth time. India made a poor start to the campaign, first two matches, we struggled like anything but thereafter, Sunil Chhetri taken the battles in his hand to make India champion for the 8th time. At regional events, India should conquer at will and not plod on in the initial stages as they did during the SAFF tournament.

Beyond SAFF

In my view, although winning regional titles is good, India must make an impact at bigger competitions like the Asian Cup to improve the global profile and ranking.

Indian national team was uninspiring in 2021 in the World Cup qualification matches. India could garner only seven points from eight matches—four draws, three losses, one win—in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier.

The first challenge in 2022 would be 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualification competition. The expectation is that we will qualify for Asian Cup 2023 once again.

At club level, FC Goa competing in the AFC Champions League was one of the highlights of the 2021 season. Playing a maiden AFC CL, FC Goa displayed an impressive brand of football against some heavy weights from the middle east region. The debut for ISL team in the Asia’s premier club competition was a big milestone for Indian football and the performance from FC Goa certainly helped in gaining respect for Indian football and the encouraging display from Goan side motivated other clubs in India to dream big. However, ATK Mohun Bagan’s AFC Cup outing at the inter-zone semi-final match was a disaster, ATK struggled like an amateur side against the Uzbek side, FC Nasaf.

Surprise of 2021

While FC Goa made an impression, I was surprised that the Goa state team lost to lowly Gujarat by one goal in the West Zone Santosh Trophy qualifiers. Excellent achievement for Gujarat football and this one result will encourage the football fraternity in Gujarat to take a big leap in Indian football.

Rajasthan United making inroads to the I-League 2nd Division qualifiers on debut was another surprise for me. Promotion to I-League will certainly give fillip to football in the state of Rajasthan.

Juan Ferrando poaching by ATK from FC Goa was like a midnight robbery to replace Antonio Habas.  

Futsal rises in the capital

Delhi FC winning the inaugural edition of the Hero Futsal Club Championship, held under the aegis of All India Football Federation (AIFF), was a big achievement by a Delhi club. Delhi FC entering the record book by being the first club from Delhi to win a national level championship. AIFF deserves credit for finally starting the National Futsal Championship in India for the first time, a much-needed intervention for the development of football.

Rise of Indian coach

The 2021 season was also productive for Indian coaches. Khalid Jamil became the first Indian to be the head coach of North East United FC, the first by any ISL team, this appointment is very encouraging situation for Indian coaches. FC Goa were forced to appoint Derrick Pereira as head coach after Juan Ferrando’s surprise, overnight move from the club. Derrick’s appointment will certainly boost the confidence of Indian coaches. The third Indian to get the ISL team’s charge is former Indian Captain Renedy Singh, he is appointed as an interim Head Coach, SC East Bengal.

Manipur domination  

It will be unfair if we don’t highlight the achievements of the Manipur women’s football. In 2021, Manipur women won the senior national title once again, which is a reflection on the patronage football gets in the state. Manipur achieved another milestone as the legend Bembem Devi became the recipient of the Padma Shri award.

Manisha’s goal will stay in the memory

The national team’s exposure tour of Brazil in November proved very useful. Versatile Punjab player Manisha Kalyan scoring against hosts Brazil in a four-nation invitational tournament in Manaus was an astonishing feat, even though India lost. This performance will inspire the women players.

Gokulam Kerala FC making history by being the first club from India to participate in the debut AFC Women’s Club Championship in 2021 and securing third place was also one of the defining moments of Indian football in 2021.

Big losses – legends of the game

Olympians and legends of Indian football Fortunato Franco, Chandrasekharan, Shankar Subramaniam (Babu Nayaran), SS Hakim and Ahmed Hussain left us in 2021 including former India internationals Sanat Seth, Chinmoy Chatterjee, Bhabani Roy, Pranab Ganguly, Prasanta Dora and others. We also lost a voice of Indian football, Novy Kapadia. They will stay close to our heart and continue to be our inspiration to put our best effort for football development.

Absence of grassroots, youth football and fans

Surging cases of pandemic in India pushed grassroots and youth football activities and competitions on the back foot. The Covid situation has denied the young talent an opportunity to showcase potential. For approx. 24 months there is no competition for youth have severely impacted the entire youth football landscape, whether it is youth league, school football, grassroots league, etc. all are in cold storage, which is not a great situation. This situation could have been handled better with better funding at grassroots and youth level. Many youth coaches, referees and young professionals lost jobs and earnings and unfortunately, there is no stimulus package or helping hand coming to save these vital football enthusiasts to remain part of the beautiful game.

Fans of Indian football are not welcomed to be part of big games in India since the start of pandemic. Hope this situation will go away soon, without fans and its energy on the stand we are missing an atmosphere which makes football incomplete in every sense. We are at a critical juncture and if we miss the fan engagement part then we will further suffer. We would need more and more fans to join the beautiful game to inspire the growth of the game in every corner of India.

Looking forward

In my view, AFC Women’s Asian Cup and FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup later in 2022 will be the catalysts to develop Indian women’s football.

AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022, the competition will start in Maharashtra on January 20. The event has expanded to 12 teams this time. Six teams will qualify from here to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It will be a great opportunity for India to challenge the best in Asia and inspire the whole generation of women’s football in India to dream big with their performances.

India is clubbed with Iran, Chinese Taipei and China. Japan is the defending champion. The squad is currently in a camp in Kochi, though injury to the experienced Bala Devi will be a blow to the team.

I hope both the men’s and women’s teams will taste high success in 2022. We can certainly hope Indian football will hit a higher growth track next year and we would witness path breaking initiatives to build the football from grassroots to the top.

May the 2022 proved to be a pathbreaking year for Indian football. Long Live Indian Football!

By Shaji Prabhakaran

Football Consultant| Sports Expert| President Football Delhi (FA)| Author| Ex-FIFA/AIFF| Consultant AFC, FIFA, ICC| CIES| Development| Management|

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