New Delhi: India, who generally makes headlines for its achievements in cricket, in 2017, showed that it is passionate about football as well. The nation successfully hosted their maiden FIFA under-17 World Cup that drew all-round praise even though the country was eliminated in the very first round.
Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, called the tournament a “resounding success” even though the event’s legacy remains debatable given that India are not even a continental force till date.
India, the country took center stage in world football for three weeks in October. The India edition of the ‘youngest’ World Cup — held across six cities — became the most attended and the highest scoring tournament in its history.
From the opening match attended in Delhi by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the grand finale in Kolkata, where more than 66,000 people watched the England-Spain showdown, it was a near flawless organisation by India.
On the field, the world’s most talented young players gave a memorable show of high-quality football. England lifted their maiden trophy as they beat Spain 5-2 in their own game of passing while crowd favourites Brazil finished third.
The final match between England and Spain was the highest scoring and perhaps the best summit clash of all the U-17 World Cups.
The Indian team led by Amarjit Singh Kiyam, as expected, could not get past the group stage, losing all its matches against Ghana, Colombia and USA. But they fought well with good organisation and shape.
They came close to grabbing their first point before losing 1-2 to Colombia with Jeakson Singh becoming the first Indian to score a World Cup goal.
The gulf in class with other teams was quite evident and was duly conceded by head coach Luis Norton de Matos.
The year also saw India qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates under the guidance of Stephen Constantine.
India have qualified for the continental showpiece event on three earlier occasions — in 1964, 1984 and 2011.
The Asian Cup qualifying campaign and clever picking of sides to play friendly internationals led to India rising to 96th in FIFA rankings, its best-ever in the last two decades and the second-best overall. Their best-ever FIFA ranking till date is 94th, which was attained in February 1996.
India also became the 12th highest ranked team in Asia. The Men in Blue also won the Tri-nation series, which consisted of Mauritius and Saint Kitts and Nevis as other two nations.
Among the low-points, Indian football was rocked by the dope failure of veteran goalkeeper Subrata Paul, whose urine sample in an out-of-competition test was found to contain banned substance terbutaline — a drug present in commonly used expectorants for a cough and cold.
He was, however, let off with a warning with the NADA panel ruling that his dope violation was “not intentional”.
The successful Indian Super League, which is in its fourth season currently, also got the official recognition from the Asian Football Confederation and its winner will get a direct berth in the AFC Cup, the continent’s second-rung club competition.
The year also marked unheralded Aizawl FC coming out of nowhere to lift the I-League title in one of the most fascinating fairytale stories, pipping Indian football’s most famous club Mohun Bagan to the post.
It was, in fact, the Leicester moment for Aizawl as their fortunes turned around in just a matter of one year after they were on the verge of relegation from the I-League last season.
Unheralded English Premier League side Leicester had also won the title in 2015-16 after they were on the verge of relegation the previous year.
A club whose budget is just around Rs 2 crore (Mohun Bagan spends the same amount in buying one player), it was an achievement of enormous proportion.
Towards the end of the year, the All India Football Federation suffered a jolt as the election of its president Praful Patel and other office-bearers were set aside by Delhi High court for violation of the National Sports Code.
The High Court-appointed former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi as administrator to bring necessary amendments in the AIFF Constitution and hold the polls within five months.
The Supreme Court later stayed the HC order but appointed Quraishi and former India captain Bhaskar Ganguly as ombudsmen to formulate the AIFF constitution within eight weeks. (With PTI inputs)