Same old story with Indian football

The men's team did put up some eye-catching performances but the sport was dominantly embroiled in off-the-field issues between different stakeholders. A look at India's run in 2023...
Caption: India's display during the SAFF Championships in Bengaluru was one of the highlights of the year
Caption: India's display during the SAFF Championships in Bengaluru was one of the highlights of the year

When 2023 began, there was hope that this would be a year of change for Indian football. A new regime had taken charge at the All India Football Federation after years of rule by the same faces. A new roadmap, mapping out plans for the next 25 years, had just been released. Asian Cup qualification had been secured almost 18 months in advance, leaving all stakeholders with enough time to map out a plan to prepare for the tournament. There was talk of a renewed focus on women's football. And the Indian Super League — the country's top flight — was going to enter into its tenth year, a notable landmark.

Yet, at the end of the year, here we are, back to where we always end up. The new regime got mired in as many controversies as the old one, made a lot of hollow noise, and even lost their general secretary barely one year after taking charge. The AIFF failed to make concrete plans for events that were just a few months away which makes one question how they are going to stick to a plan that spans 25 years.

A case in point is how India's squad for the Asian Games was yet to be finalised with just a couple of days left for their opener — a match that a tired squad played jetlagged after being forced to sleep in airports. The Indian Super League lost their broadcast partners Star and currently airs on Viacom18, owned by the same company that owns the league. And as the year ends, we have familiar noises being made by India coach Igor Stimac on how he had little time to prepare for the Asian Cup (just a two-week camp!). How many times have we heard an India coach complain about the exact same thing?

Things were not all bad though! The Blue Tigers enjoyed a remarkable run of form on the pitch, playing better football than had been seen in years. It took until September and their 13th match of the calendar year for them to taste defeat. The run even propelled them back into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings for a few months and earned Stimac a two-year contract extension.

The highlight of that run was probably the SAFF Cup victory in July. India are always expected to win the SAFF Championships but the 2023 edition at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium was different. The presence of Pakistan, playing again in India after a while, meant that the tournament kicked off to a packed stadium. India's comprehensive victory over their neighbours meant that the crowd stayed for the rest of the tournament too. The presence of Kuwait and Lebanon — who came to these shores ranked above India and left ranked one place below — meant that things were not going to be straightforward.

But egged on by a vocal Bengaluru crowd, India not only got the results but did so while physically dominating their opponents, a rare sight over the years in Indian football. Both the semifinal against Lebanon and the final against Kuwait went to extra time and then penalties. But in both matches, it was the away team who ran out of fuel and were seen wasting time to take the match to penalties. That tactic backfired as the Indians held their nerves to come up trumps in both matches.

But just when it looked like Indian football would head to a major tournament on a high, the Asian Games happened. First, there was the announcement that India would not be participating. Then a social media campaign, kicked off by the PR-savvy Stimac of course, ended in India being given provisional approval to participate. But then, it emerged that he would not get the team he wanted as the Indian Super League refused to postpone fixtures and its clubs said no to releasing senior players. What followed was a game of 'who would blink first' between the league, the AIFF and the clubs, that lasted until there were only a couple of hours left for India's first game against China. In the end, the one big loser was Indian football.

That was far from the only time that Stimac failed to get what he wanted. In July, right after India had triumphed in the SAFF Cup, Stimac stressed the importance of preparation when it came to the Asian Cup. "The most important time for the National team of India to prepare well for the Asian Cup is December," he said. "We are looking to get a minimum of four-weeks of preparation. The rest doesn't matter."

Yet when December came, the Indian Super League was continuing in full flow and the players were all with their respective clubs. Four weeks of preparation ended up being a fantasy for the Croatian. The league will only go on a break with just a few hours left for the new year and Stimac will only get less than half what he asked for. Given that India faces Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria — three tough opponents — in the tournament which starts from January 12, conventional wisdom would have involved giving the coach whatever he wanted. But then, the AIFF always prefers to think differently.

And as Indian football stands on the cusp of another new year, there is, as always, talk of change. There is plenty of talk about players of Indian origin being shipped in to wear the blue shirt and propel India to short-term success. There is talk of approaching Saudi Arabia to host some matches of the 2034 FIFA World Cup. Arsene Wenger was in the country a month ago to inaugurate the FIFA-AIFF Academy. If only there was, in the words of the great Elvis Presley, a little less conversation, a little more action.

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The New Indian Express