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Bengaluru FC emerge tall, India finish with a mixed bag in soccer (2016 In Retrospect)

Kolkata, Dec 26 (IANS) Bengaluru FC provided the sparks, while the national men's team advanced in rankings despite an overall tepid show during 2016 -- a crucial year for Indian soccer that saw the authorities busy preparing facilities for the first-ever Under-17 World Cup on home soil.

Endless speculation also kept the pot boiling about the fate of the I-League, that could become a tier-two competition with the All India Football Federation mandarins planning to make the cash-rich Indian Super League the main domestic tourney.

Lending an individual sheen was goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who became the first Indian to play in the Europa League (Europe's equivalent to AFC Cup) for Norwegian club Stabaek FC.

But it was Bengaluru FC that got the maximum accolades as they became the first-ever Indian club to reach the final of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup, the continent's second-most important club competition.

The Blues of India, as Bengaluru FC are called, won their second I-League title during the year and then took their performance to another level by getting past holders Johor Darul Ta'zim of Malaysia to enter the summit round of the AFC Cup.

With soccer fans across the nation cheering them on, the JSW-backed side, ably guided by former FC Barcelona assistant coach Albert Roca, put up an impressive show in the final clash, but ultimately lost 0-1 to a superior Iraqi Air Force Club.

On the other hand, the Indian national team under British-Cypriot coach Stephen Constantine reclaimed the SAFF Cup from Afghanistan, but sank without a trace in the World Cup qualifiers, finishing at the bottom of their group -- even below Guam, a tiny US territory in the North Pacific Ocean with a population of less than 200,000.

As the season progressed, India benefited from the chicanery of FIFA rankings which catapulted them to 135th in December, their best in six years.

On the back of their win against higher-ranked Puerto Rico in a FIFA friendly in September which helped them garner 230 points for the month, the perennial underachievers scaled the ranking ladder. But a deeper scrutiny reveals the tourists landed barely 24 hours before their fixture, jet-lagged.

Also, critics complain that while the FIFA rankings often provide a far from accurate picture -- as exemplified by Belgium last year when they rose to second place behind Germany -- the concept looks fundamentally flawed in assessing teams like India which play very few international matches.

The men's U-23 team failed to get past Nepal in the South Asian Games losing 1-2 in the final, but the eves fared better, thrashing the same opponent 4-0 to win the same competition.

In the domestic arena, Atletico de Kolkata remained the most consistent team of the ISL by clinching their second title in the three years of the competition.

Under coach Jose Molina, the franchise drew eight times in the league -- the highest at that stage in all three seasons -- to win the crown leapfrogging Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters in the semifinal and final, respectively.

But overall, the standards of the eight-team meet dropped with boring games ruling the roost.

The ISL -- which according to the AIFF and ISL operators FSDL will be the top league with no relegation after the U-17 World Cup -- was also the reason Goan clubs pulled the plug on their league stints.

Five-time I-League winners Dempo, 60-year-old club Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa decided to walk away from the league during the year, which also saw Mohun Bagan annexing the Federation Cup and Services claiming the Santosh Trophy.

Looking ahead, a lot is riding on the Indian U-16 colts preparing for the junior World Cup which the country is set to host for the first time. The boys, under German coach Nicolai Adam, have been very impressive, their performance against Brazil in the BRICS Cup being the crowning moment.

All eyes will be on the showpiece event in October next year and even hard-nosed critics agree that it will give a face-lift to Indian football.

Elsewhere, Portugal got a major boost by winning the European Championships this summer in France. Not just did Cristiano Ronaldo pip his eternal rival Lionel Messi in the medal count for the country by winning his first piece of silverware, the fact that they upset the more fancied hosts took everyone by surprise.

Messi, on the other hand, suffered the ignominy of another title snub at the final hurdle at Copa America, as Argentina lost to Chile on penalties with the talisman infamously skying his spot kick. The FC Barcelona star retired from international football in disgust -- only to announce a comeback months later.

Ronaldo continued his march, winning a fourth Ballon d'Or crown after also helping Real Madrid win the Champions League.

In another miracle story, Leicester City defied all odds to lift the Premier League despite being 5,000-1 outsiders to do the implausible.

Off the pitch, disgraced FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his one-time heir apparent Michel Platini were banned from football for eight years, throwing the game into dark territories.

(This is a part of a series of articles from IANS that look back at the year that was. Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at debayan.m@ians.in)

--IANS

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