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2014: A watershed year for Indian football

Rewind 2014The year 2014 has been a promising one for Indian football, one that has put India on the world football map.

Before the year began, you would’ve been considered delusional if you’d said that Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet would play in the country, while a legend like Zico would be in the dugout as a coach. But the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) made it possible, and how!

Nicolas Anelka during the ISL
Nicolas Anelka during the ISL

Of superstars and fans
Not only did these superstars of world football come to India but many of them have also promised to be back next year given the success of the franchise-based league. And with the superstars, came the hordes. 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 the German Bundesliga, English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

And this in a country whose premier domestic competition — I-League — frequently struggles to attract even a few thousands to the stands, with the exception of maybe a few derby matches in Kolkata or Goa. But it is not the presence of these stars or the fanfare that has been the most promising aspect of the year.

The year’s biggest takeaway was the opportunities presented to the Indian players and the lessons they would have learnt playing alongside the Anelkas and Del Pieros of the world.

Besides, Indian players have been noticed across the world — FC Goa’s Romeo Fernandes has been offered a contract with Brazilian club Clube Atletico Paranaense. This, in stark contrast of how top Indian footballers like Subrata Paul, Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri had to first establish themselves in the country, then travel abroad for trials only after which a contract was a possibility.

Twenty-two-year-old Romeo has barely played for his I-League side Dempo, let alone the national team, but finds himself fancying a contract with assured playing time in the Brazilian top flight.

Hope floats
Another player, Kerala Blasters’ Sandesh Jhingan, is also said to be courting interest from foreign clubs.
India football’s dwindling FIFA ranking notwithstanding (it dropped from 156 at the start of the year to 171 in December) there is hope for an ascent.

With tournaments like the FIFA U-17 World Cup scheduled here in 2017 and the possibility of the prestigious Club World Cup being hosted here, the profile of the sport is on the rise. One can only hope that Indian football lives up to the promise it showed in 2014.

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