U-17 WC hosting rights highlight of 2013 for Indian football
New Delhi: Securing the hosting rights of the prestigious 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup was the lone silver lining in an otherwise disappointing and forgettable year gone by for Indian football.
On the field, it was one of the worst years in recent times with India failing to defend the SAFF Championships which the country has won six times out of the 10 editions held so far.
India could not even qualify for the final round of the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament competed by middle-rung Asian nations in the FIFA rankings. India also played four international friendlies during the year, losing two, winning one and drawing the other.
The much-anticipated IPL-style football league proposed to be held early next year was also postponed to September 2014 just days before the franchise bidding, citing various factors, including scheduling conflicts with the I-League and non-availability of stadium in Goa due to delay in Lusofonia Games.
The All India Football Federation did not have much to show, as the national team was faring poorly, except for clinching of the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup at the fag end of the year which no doubt was a landmark achievement in Indian football history.
The FIFA had encouraged India to bid for the mega event in continuation of its "football geo-politics" but the country nearly lost the tournament for want of assurances from the government-- a pre-requisite to host a FIFA event of this magnitude.
India`s bid was rejected by the FIFA early in the year and its final bid documents were submitted at the last minute due to delay in getting government guarantees on various subjects.
By virtue of being the host country, an Indian team will play in the 24-nation tournament which will be held in six venues across the country.
Another high point for Indian football was the signing of goalkeeper Subrata Paul by Danish Superliga side FC Vestsjaelland, also known as FC Vikings, after a three-week trial stint with the club.
Paul will be with the Danish top-tier league side for a period of six months starting January 1.
He will become the first Indian footballer to join a top tier side in Europe.
The year began with India losing to Palestine 2-4 in an international friendly played in Pune in February before producing a disappointing show in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying round in Myanmar.
India, under Wim Koevermans, lost 0-1 to hosts Myanmar in the final group match and failed to qualify for the final round to be held in Maldives next year.
The failure to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup final round meant that India will not be in contention for an automatic berth in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, the continent's flagship tournament.
In 2011, India played in the AFC Asian Cup in Doha after winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup at home. The winners of 2012 and 2014 AFC Challenge Cup final rounds qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
The AFC Challenge Cup debacle was followed by another 0-3 drubbing by Tajikistan in an away international friendly. India played two other international friendlies -- drawing against Philippines 1-1 and defeating Nepal 2-0 -- both in Siliguri last month.
But the event which hurt India's pride the most was the failure to defend the SAFF Championships title in Kathmandu. SAFF Championships is one tournament where India can claim to be a dominant force but this time they were beaten by Nepal 1-2 in the group stage and lost 0-2 to a rising Afghanistan in the final.
India coach Koevermans' report card read six wins, two draws and four losses, not an impressive one considering that the country -- ranked 154th in the year-ending FIFA chart -- did not play against any top-rung nation. Tajikistan is the highest-ranked country -- 114th -- which India played against this year.
The year also saw an an IPL-style football tournament (called Indian Super League) being proposed to be held between January and March next year. The event is to be organised by AIFF's commercial partner IMG-Reliance with some of the just-retired football stars' names like David Beckham, Thiery Henry and Michael Owen doing the rounds to play in it.
It was a dampener of sorts for the impatient football fans in India, who are upbeat about the league, especially after IMG-R had announced the roping in of the likes of Louis Saha, Dwight Yorke, Fredrik Ljungberg, Hernan Crespo and Robert Pires as marquee players.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, 1998 World Cup winner France international Marcel Desailly and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish have also been signed for the role of managers.
The IMG-Reliance has already signed some domestic players, including some India internationals, and held camps in Mumbai under former East Bengal coach Trevor Morgan to set into motion the introduction of the league.
The proposed tournament, however, did not get active support from the I-League teams which initially refused to loan players to the ISL.
Some clubs though relented later with a cash-strapped Mohammedan Sporting taking in IMG-Reliance contracted players like Syed Rahim Nabi and Rangdajied United signing the likes of India internationals Gouramangi Singh and Subrata Paul.
There were also reports that a few owners of I-League clubs were planning to buy franchise teams in the ISL.
In the AFC Cup, Asia's second-tier club competition, East Bengal became only the second Indian side after Dempo to reach the semifinals but could not progress to the final as they were outplayed by two-time defending champions Kuwait Sports Club on 7-2 aggregate over two legs.
Pune FC, meanwhile, got a chance to compete in the play-off stage of next year's AFC Champions League, the continent's top tier club competition, by virtue of finishing second in I-League and fulfilling the AFC Club Licensing criteria.
In the I-League, defending champions Churchill Brothers had a disastrous season as they languished at the bottom of the 13-team table with just 10 points and two wins from 13 matches.
This year's I-League story has been the impressive debut of Bengaluru FC, owned by JSW Group, as they topped the league table after 15 rounds, with Sporting Clube de Goa occupying a surprise second.
In its administrative decisions, the AIFF extended the contracts of head coach Koevermans and Technical Director Rob Baan and re-appointed its General Secretary Kushal Das for his second three-year term.
Koevermans' record was far from impressive after taking charge of the national team in July last year but the AIFF decided to extend the contract of the Dutchman for four months till the end of the Asian Games in October 2014. Koevermans will be in charge of India's campaign in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.
The AIFF also extended the contract of Indian team technical director and fellow Dutchman Rob Baan by another year till October next year.
The 70-year Baan was appointed for a two year term in October 2011. He suffered a heart attack while conducting AFC Licensing Course in Mumbai in July. He spent some time at home in the Netherlands but returned to rejoin his job.
The AIFF also amended its constitution to bring in line with the government's Sports Code, mainly regarding the age and tenure rules.