Messi remains Messi, India a little less 'messy'
By Philem Dipak Singh
New Delhi, Dec 28 (PTI) India went from a "sleeping giant" to a "passionate giant" by successfully hosting their maiden FIFA under-17 World Cup but 'Messi Magic' once again reigned supreme in global football as he single-handedly dragged a blundering Argentina into the 2018 World Cup.
Laggards in international rankings, India finally made their presence felt by pulling off an impressive under-17 World Cup that drew all-round praise even though the country was eliminated in the very first round.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino called it a "resounding success" even though the event's legacy remains debatable given that India are not even a continental force till date.
Globally, football fans the world over watched first in horror and then in amazement, two-time champion Argentina's floundering campaign to get to the 2018 World Cup's main draw.
It all boiled down to one man in the end and Lionel Messi was up for the challenge as he quite literally carried the weight of the entire team and pulled it through for a ticket to Russia.
Messi's rather mesmerising hat-trick helped La Albiceleste beat Ecuador in the qualifying final round.
Whether the Argentine virtuoso joins the ranks of Pele and Diego Maradona by lifting the coveted trophy -- thereby football paying its debt to him -- will be known only in July next year.
But his magical left foot continued set the bar higher and he is currently La Liga's highest goal-scorer in FC Barcelona's nine-point lead at the top.
On the other hand, his competitor Cristiano Ronaldo picked up his fifth Ballon d'Or to match the Argentine, while his club Real Madrid became the FIFA club world champions once again.
As for India, the country took centerstage 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.
India also became the 12th highest ranked team in Asia.
India's best-ever FIFA ranking till date is 94th, which was attained in February 1996.
Among the low-points, Indian football was rocked by 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 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 was 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