Salt Lake | Ambedkar | Andheri | What next for Indian Football?
Back when social media was not a rage and the glitz and the glamour in India football was absent, the people of Kolkata flocked to witness the national team perform. They did so on September 9, 2004, to watch the team in action against Japan in a World Cup qualifier. The Stephen Constantine managed side succumbed to a 0-4 defeat under the floodlights at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata. It was not a surprising result by any means. In the earlier clash between the two nations, the Japanese had managed to put in seven goals past the hapless Indians. Clearly, the national team had hit rock bottom.
On the back of a decent showing at the Afro-Asian Games in 2003, India’s performance in the World Cup qualifiers baffled a lot of people but it set into motion a set of changes which turned out to be beneficial in the long run. The following year Stephen Constantine stepped aside to be replaced by former captain Syed Nayeemuddin who led the side for a year before Bob Houghton took over the reins of the national team. With an emphasis on youth and building for the future, Bob Houghton guided the team to immediate glory with a victory in the Nehru Cup courtesy of a N.P. Pradeep strike against Syria in the final. The following year, in perhaps the finest moment in Indian football in the 21st Century, the side comprising the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Steven Dias and Climax Lawrence triumphed over Tajikistan in the final to book their place in the Asian Cup edition of 2011.
The game was important for two reasons. Firstly, it was fitting that it was the last game of this stature to be held at the Ambedkar Stadium which had a prestigious past owing to its association with the once coveted Durand Cup. And secondly and more importantly, the final announced the formal arrival of Sunil Chhetri as the successor to Bhaichung Bhutia and the future flag bearer of Indian football. Although Chhetri’s debut was in 2005 against Pakistan, the AFC Challenge Cup and especially the final clearly cemented his place as the future of the nation’s football. In the years that have gone by, Sunil Chhetri has time and again proven his worth.
Between 2008 and 2018, a lot of changes took place in Indian football. India played in the AFC Asian Cup in 2011, won the Nehru Cup on a few occasions, the likes of Mahindra United and JCT left the football setup and the Indian Super League came into being with its promise of revolutionizing the game in India. However, nothing seemed to attract people to the grounds. There were the odd clubs which managed to build a fan base but nothing of that sort was there for the National team. Even when the team was playing well in the Asian Cup qualifiers, there were empty stands.
This brings us to the Intercontinental Cup in 2018 where Chhetri played his 100th match for the country and scored some fantastic goals leading India to glory. However, more than the performance of the team on the pitch, the tournament will be remembered for the manner in which fans backed the team. A social media appeal saw fans filling the stadium in numbers and lightening up the stands with their chants. For someone who has for a long time lamented the lack of support from the public, the scenes at the Mumbai Football Arena on July 10, 2018, were immensely gratifying to say the least.
So while the Indian national team hit bottom at Salt Lake in 2004 and managed to recover at Ambedkar in 2008; 2018 was when it finally received the whole hearted support and backing of the public. Which makes one wonder, what is the next big thing in store? Is it qualification from the group stage at Abu Dhabi in 2019? Qualification for Tokyo? Or something even bigger?