A new year with fresh hopes is here, as Indian football is set to embark its AFC Asian Cup challenge in 2019 - a milestone that might change the course of Indian football. The year will be holding a lot for football in the country as drastic changes can be expected from the federation level to the fields.
What happened in 2018?
2018 was a mixed experience of football in India. Two new ISL teams showcased prestigious display along with some eye-catching performances from a select few I-League clubs. Chennaiyin FC lifted the ISL cup beating Bengaluru FC, who had a world-class run throughout the season. In I-League, Minerva Punjab was crowned the champions after a nail-biting finish alongside Neroca FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
Super Cup was introduced for the first time this season, providing a platform for the I-League and ISL clubs to lock horns with each other. The championship that lasted for 3 weeks, ended with Bengaluru FC lifting the cup defeating East Bengal.
Later on, India played the SAFF Championship with a very young squad and finished as runners-up, losing to Maldives in the final. The 5th edition of ISL kick-started late September and was adjourned for two international breaks in October and November.
Indian national team had friendlies scheduled in both the breaks. On 13th October, the Blue Tigers faced China and managed a draw with the 76th ranked team in the FIFA rankings. In November, the team travelled to Jordan to face the national team and lost 2-1, with many prominent faces missing from action.
At the end of 2018, ISL points table stand with Bengaluru FC remaining at the top, unbeaten this season. There has been some impressive performances from sides like Chennai City and Real Kashmir.
But still, 2018 remains a year with a lot of controversies involved. From the unfair treatment to I-League and the clubs protesting, to the troubles faced by the national team after getting stuck in the airport for hours, there were many headline-grabbing stories. All India Football Federation (AIFF) was strongly criticized for its improper management. There were numerous instances when the federation was at the negative end, leaving the clubs and fans disappointed. Avoidable situations were led into shameful controversies.
What does 2019 hold?
AFC Asian Cup 2019
The new year is setting off with a positive mark. The first and major tournament the football followers in the country will look forward to will be India's Asian Cup encounters. The team will start its proceedings on January 6 against Thailand and will be playing 3 group matches in UAE. The thousands of fans along with the godfathers of Indian football are hopeful of the Blue Tigers making it to the knockouts. If India can advance to the Round of 16, pushing back UAE or Bahrain, another story can be added to the history books.
Stephen Constantine's contract
The national team will remain in the limelight even after the continental championship ends. Stephen Constantine, who has been at the hot seat for 4 years now, will have his contract expired at the end of this month. Though there were reports that AIFF is set to part ways with the Englishman, everything was denied by the governing body a few days back. However, Constantine's tactics have been hugely criticised by many, mostly for the defence-centred play. There were also rumours of a rift between the gaffer and captain Sunil Chhetri last year. Hence, it will be interesting to see whether AIFF extends Constantine's stay in India.
AFC Cup 2019
The continental competition will be again on for two clubs in the country soon after the Asian Cup. Champions of the two leagues in India - Chennaiyin FC and Minerva Punjab will have matches at the AFC Cup. While Minerva Punjab has directly entered the Group stage, Chennaiyin FC will have to feature in a playoff against Colombo FC or Transport United in the two legs on 6th and 13th of March.
But both of India's representatives at the AFC Cup are not in the best positions in their respective leagues. Minerva Punjab is placed 7th in I-League with 13 points so far. They have registered victories only in 3 of their 10 games. Chennaiyin FC is having an even worse scenario. The current champions are at the bottom of the table with a single win from 12 games and have 5 points.
The slots once occupied by Bengaluru FC and justified with a run to the final, might not be fully utilised by these two clubs at their present form. This situation also adds more power to Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri's request to grand the AFC Cup slot in ISL to the table toppers, rather than the champions.
ISL- I-League merger
This has been a talking point in Indian football for the last 3 years. Even though a complete merger is not on the cards, some kind of changes will be brought in the structure of the two leagues. It is most likely that AIFF might invite bids for new ISL clubs as a part of its expansion. Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan would be favourites to get slots in the Indian Super League this year. But, there would be stiff competition from other franchises to enter the cash-rich league. The off-season this year would mostly be talking about this happening.
The events taking place in I-League recently has been a headache for AIFF. The federation has been treating India's top league poorly. While ISL is given fair attention and promotion, I-League continues to be demoted continuously. The recent decision to cut down the number of matches telecasted was one among these. AIFF and President Praful Patel will be under pressure to address the I-League clubs on these cases. The clubs are sure to demand more priority and better treatment in the coming season. This would surely be a hot topic in Indian football and one that would attract trouble to the football body.
Indian Super League (ISL) came as a good platform to develop football in the country. But the league is now 5 years old and needs to shift to the professional phase from the developmental phase. ISL has gradually been adopting good changes, but is far away from being the best. The league was extended from 3 months to 5 months last season. But still, ISL is a league where the clubs compete for the top 4 positions and not for the table top. The knockout phase is taking away the competitiveness of the clubs. Though it may be interesting in the semi-finals, the league matches are often played out by the clubs, without aiming for a win. Minute changes like these are inevitable for the league's success. ISL also needs to change its measure on stadium attendance. The figures are on a decline and need to be dealt with, mostly by the entry of more clubs. A relegation process too would be necessary and can be expected in the years to come, if not this year. These changes are being demanded by many for some time now. Even if not all, a few alterations from these can be expected in the ISL structure in the coming season. This might become one big change that can happen in Indian football in 2019.
These are all possible changes that can take place. Moreover, it will be unavoidable for Indian football's long run and dreams. AIFF remains an important factor in all these, but the recent interest shown by the federation is arousing a worry in the minds of people. This might also lead to a change in the constitution of core of All India Football Federation (AIFF) this year. AIFF President Praful Patel's wild dream of India making the 2026 World Cup can be fulfilled only by a series of good substitutions right from the bottom.
No matter what, 2019 holds a lot for Indian football right from the very first month.