Fact: India sucks at Football. Fact: We were ranked #96 in the world in 1994, bad enough. Fact: We crashed to #173 in 2015. Like, how?
But recently, things have improved. A bit. India has climbed 44 places in the last two years. Number 129 is still sad, but Indian football is on an upward trajectory. Here’s why.
Reason #1: Bengaluru FC Shows The Way
Bengaluru FC have won the I-League twice in the last three years. Despite being only ten-years old, the club has re-defined India’s domestic football scene
In 2013, when the All India Football Federation invited JSW – one of the largest business conglomerates in India – they recognised the need to replicate the professionalism of the European leagues.
We wanted to learn from the best. From the way the team crest was designed to the type of communication that went out to the fans, every aspect was about how to do it to an international standard.Mustafa Ghouse, Bengaluru FC’s chief operating officer
Albert Roca – former assistant to Frank Rijkaard of FC Barcelona – was made the manager. His sheer wealth of experience serves as a priceless resource to the team’s core of Indian players.
They made history last year, becoming the first team to make it to the finals of the AFC Champions Cup – Asia’s second biggest continental competition. While they lost the final, the team won a legion of followers across the city and the nation, which has once again begun to pay heed to football
Reason #2: Finally, Investing In Young Talent
By 2013, the nation began massive renovations to its grassroots infrastructure. Both UEFA and the AIFF are funding more programs for talented youth to train with foreign clubs, and gain vital experience.
Bangalore’s Ishan Pandita’s is one such story as he became the first Indian player to be signed by a Spanish side, Club Deportivo Leganes. Pandita signed a one-year contract, joining their youth academy. While he plies his trade for the Under-19 side, he stands a real chance of breaking into the first team, with the possibility to play against players such as Messi and Ronaldo.
Basit Ahmed and Mohammad Asrar Rehbar, two 18-year-old Kashmiri boys, signed a 6-month contract with third division Spanish side Sociedad Deportiva Lenense Proinastur. Both boys will become the first Indian players to play for the first team of a Spanish football side, paving the path for future such talents
Reason #3: Foreign Exposure Paying Off
In August 2015, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, a 23-year-old goalkeeper from Jalandhar, made his debut for Norwegian team Stabæk FC.
Despite joining as a backup, Sandhu got his chance for the first team in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds, making him the first Indian in a European club competition. His club performances made him India’s first team keeper, and captain by December 2015.
24-year-old Aditi Chauhan became the first Indian to play for a English Premier League team when she became the starting shot-stopper for West Ham Ladies F.C earlier last year. She has since become a regular fixture in the team, with the highest number of penalty saves in the league.
Reason #4: Team India Starts Scoring
A 4-1 win vs Puerto Rico in September capped off a 6-match winning streak, enabling India to reach to the 2nd Pot of AFC Asian Cup qualifying.
Our ranking is at its highest since 2005 which is obviously great for Indian football. But I can say that we have only just begun our journey.Stephen Constantine, National Team Head Coach
Central to Constantine’s tactics was the form of former captain Sunil Chetri. Three decisive goals during the streak took his tally to 51 goals in 91 games, at a ratio of 0.48 goals to a game. The ratio is only marginally worse than that of Cristiano Ronaldo (0.52 to 1) & Lionel Messi (0.51 to 1).
This is a phenomenal feat in itself, and Chhetri stands as a pillar of strength around which the younger members of team India can rally around.
Reason #5: Indian Super League, The Catalyst
Reliance and IMG’s financial gamble paid off, as the ISL brought back life into Indian football, and attracted the professional interest of European clubs.
The second tournament garnered a total of 214 million viewers over the season with many stadiums being filled to near capacity throughout the the league’s two editions thus far.
The ISL has changed it all, taking football to news. Little kids are taking to the game in numbers which makes it easier to spot more talent.The league has helped garner more interest in youngsters and helped football.Baichung Bhutia, former captain of the Indian National Team
While there is a way to go, Indian football might finally have the foundation it needs to make a meaningful improvement.