ISL glitz propels Indian soccer
The ‘sleeping giant’ woke up to a new dawn with the ISL putting Indian football on the global map, but the national team continued to paint a grim picture, plummeting to its worst-ever rankings in an eventful year for the sport.
The national team’s prolonged decline got buried under the intense hype over what turned out to be a fairly successful inaugural Indian Super League, which was graced by former stars such as Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Robert Pires, Marco Materrazi, Luis Garcia and Nicolas Anelka, among others.
Seen for over two months on the dugout was Zico, a football legend in his own right not just in Brazil but the world over. Goa FC did reach the semifinal of ISL but more importantly the players were under the tutelage of Zico for over two months, something that would surely benefit them in near future.
Besides the franchise-based tournament, a model based on cricket’s popular Indian Premier League, bagging the 2017 Under-17 World Cup was another silver lining this year for the success-starved nation that is struggling at 171 in FIFA rankings.
In January, India were ranked 156th and by the end of year, they dropped 15 places, the never-ending spate of reverses leaving coach Wim Koevermans so frustrated that the Dutchman decided not to continue in the hot seat. Another one from the Netherlands, Robb Bann, has also quit from the post of technical director. A replacement is awaited with Stephen Constantine emerging as the front-runner for his second spell as India coach. ISL franchise NorthEast United’s coach Rickie Herbert’s name is also doing the rounds. If the lack of enough international friendlies is one of the reasons for the national team’s decline, the Indians failed to perform the few times they played, most prominent among them being the defeat to Pakistan.
The women’s and the junior teams though fared better compared to the senior men’s team.
The on-field disappointments of the men’s national team aside, the year panned out to be quite a promising one for Indian football. Not too long ago not many people would have imagined that footballers who were once big names, would be criss-crossing the country, dishing out the best they could offer in this stage of their lives in different cities. ISL made it possible, and how! The presence of big attractions lured the fans and they trooped in to the stadiums in droves, cheering for their cities and some of the favourite stars who they saw only on TV in the past.
The likes of Del Piero, Materrazi and Trezeguet gave the fans just the kind of connect with club football that the I-League had struggled to provide over so many years. Added attraction was the Bollywood and cricket connection that most of the clubs had with legends like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly joining popular actors such as Ranbir Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan as owners various franchises. With legends on display both on the pitch and in the stands, fans turned up in droves to catch the action and the players too rose to the expectations providing engaging contests, making the ISL a success in its inaugural season itself.
According to figures released by ISL organisers in November, the eight-team tournament was the fourth highest attended league in the world with an average attendance of 24,357, only behind German Bundesliga, English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.
This was in stark contrast to the country’s premier domestic competition, the I-League, which struggles to attract even a few thousands to the stands, with the exception of maybe a few derby matches in Kolkata or Goa.
The year will also be remembered for Brazil’s fall and Germany’s rise in world football. The European heavyweight won their fourth World Cup title in the mecca of football, embarrassing Brazil 7-1 in front of their teary-eyed fans in one of the most one-sided World Cup semifinals ever, which changed the pecking order in the sport. Brazil, though, became the only country to appear in all the 20 World Cups.
Among other things, the legend of Lionel Messi only got bigger as the Cup of Cups progressed in South America. The Barcelona star almost singlehandedly guided Argentina to the summit showdown where they dominated the mighty Germans for a better part of the game before Mario Gotze scored a stunning extra-time goal to seal the issue in the European nation’s favour.