As it is wont to, Indian football hardly made any noises in a year marked by many a stalemate, a few losses and fewer wins, and a talisman dribbling past a record held by arguably the sport’s greatest.
Heading into 2022, the sport continues to yearn for that big success story, that massive breakthrough, which will transform it forever, especially from on-field performance point of view.
During the year, the Indian senior men’s team won a record-extending eighth SAFF Championship title but for a nation seeking to relieve its glory days of the 1950s-60s and re-establish itself on the big stage, a triumph in a regional tournament is not something it would like to contend with.
But that’s where the problem lies.
The moment the Indian men ran into bigger teams, they struggled to deliver the goods and eke out favourable results, even though the Blue Tigers did play well in patches. Whenever it seemed like a win was around the corner after a spirited fight against a biggie, all the team could achieve was a draw.
This meant the Indian men’s team ended its campaign in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers with seven points after registering four draws, three losses and one win from their eight matches.
They scored six goals and conceded seven, and again, they could not clear the second round of the qualifiers.
India were placed in the Group E of the qualifiers where they finished third behind Qatar and Oman.
India, though, still have a chance to earn a qualification to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Veteran Sunil Chhetri went past the legendary Pele and equalled Lionel Messi when he scored the team’s opener — and his 80th goal — against Nepal in the summit clash of the SAFF Championships in October.
Draws against Bangladesh (1-1) and Sri Lanka (0-0) in the first two games of the tournament had attracted criticism, but India got their act together just in time to win the next set of matches and maintain their dominance in the regional meet.
Head coach Igor Stimac found himself under immense pressure after a prolonged run of unimpressive outings but he managed to keep his job for another year.
When it came to women’s football, it was a year when they braced for the litmus tests that lay ahead. 2021 was all about preparation, participating in invitational tournaments, going on exposure trips and playing friendlies, so that the women are up for it when the country hosts the AFC Asian Cup in January-February and the U-17 FIFA World Cup towards the end of next year.
The results have been poor to say the least even though the team did display the attributes to fight during the South American sojourn when they ran into, among others, world football heavyweights Brazil.
Going by the numbers, the have lost 11 of their 14 matches this year, under Maymol Rocky and Thomas Dennerby, who was recruited keeping in mind the two big upcoming tournaments.
Rocky’s tenure came to an end after a string of poor performances. However, To be fair to her, she had taken over the reins during a rough phase and helped the team settle into a cohesive unit.
With potentially six 2023 World Cup spots up for grabs in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, India will be looking to give their best shot at making it to the world stage.
The players are aware of the opportunity and the onus will on them to grab it with both hands.
”This is the right time to give our best, we will not regret it later. For us, each and every game we will play will be a do-or-die situation. Every game is an opportunity for us,” winger Dangmei Grace said of the Asian Cup.
India are clubbed with Iran, Chinese Taipei and China and the host nation will have its task cut out against these teams.
Of the 27 players present in the camp in Kochi, as many as 13 were under the age of 25, and all of them had been working hard to make the final squad.
”There are plenty of youngsters in the squad, and they are all working really hard to make the final cut for the Asian Cup.
”We even have a number of really young players, who are also in the U-17s – Shilky (Devi), Astam (Oraon), Martina (Thokchom), and a few others, who have brought a lot of energy into the squad,” said Grace.
Another highlight of the year was Indian Super League (ISL) team FC Goa playing in the AFC Champions League, creating history in the process as no other club from the country had gone that far.
Meanwhile, Chhetri, perhaps for the first time ever in more than a decade, found himself benched as his team Bengaluru FC struggled to get going in the first phase of the ISL.
At 37, he is not getting any younger and it remains to be seen how long he will carry on as the face of Indian football. The coming year might give a clearer picture.