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The golden age of Indian football is more than six decades behind us, but certain football fans in the country believe that the platinum age of the sport is yet to arrive, with the increasing following of football coinciding with the structural changes in All India Football Federation.
Moreover, the advent of the Indian Super League has once again solidified India’s status as a growing giant in Asian football, which is growing at a rapid pace collectively. On November 16, Igor Stimac’s Blue Tigers defeated Kuwait 1-0 courtesy of a Manvir Singh goal that marked India’s first win in the Arab world against an Arab nation.
Indian football is going in the right direction and FIFA’s chief of global football development Arsene Wenger inaugurated a FIFA-AIFF youth academy in Odisha on November 21 to kickstart the growth of the next generation of superstars.
Wenger profiled the difference between Indian players and European players down to football education.
“You take three boys, one born in Mumbai, one in Sao Paulo and the other in Paris. There is no difference between the three after the first day or the first year when it comes to football. It’s after 15 years that the difference between the quality of the players shows up. And that is only down to one reason: Football education. And that’s what the AIFF-Fifa football academy wants to achieve, wipe out the difference in the quality of education,”the former Arsenal manager said.
Football is a sport that is best enjoyed by loud cheering fans with the best possible view of the action from the vibrant stands located in the most precious stadiums in the region.
The Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Kirirangan, also known as the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, was built in 1984 and recorded the most attendance of 131,781 in a match between arch-rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
The iconic stadium was built in 1984 and was the largest football stadium in the world till 1989 but the capacity of the stadium was reduced to 85,000 when the stadium underwent renovation in 2011. To date, the venue has hosted several top-tier matches, including the final of the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup, along with several Kolkata derbies.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi has incredible infrastructure and architecture, housing more than 60,000 seats even after renovation, which was primarily done to meet the standards set by FIFA, AFC, and IAAF.
The stadium was originally constructed to host the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games and has since hosted several high-profile sporting events, including the match between the Indian national football team and Bayern Munich which was a farewell fixture for Bhaichung Bhutia.
The Mumbai Football Arena is the only football-only stadium in the country, as the capital city of Maharashtra houses the 6,600-seater stadium. The atmosphere and the facilities in the home ground of Mumbai City have often been praised by fans and pundits alike in the recent past.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi is the designated host venue for Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League, and it is often known as the noisiest stadium in the country. After the renovation in 2017, the capacity of the stadium has been brought down to 40,000 from 80,000 keeping the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup in mind.
The stadium also boasts of 2kW Floodlights, a unique feature as it hosts both cricket and football matches, previously hosting 10 ODI matches and five IPL matches along with numerous ISL fixtures.
From Barefoot to Stardom
As a newly independent nation, India had the chance to go for the FIFA World Cup but opted out of the plan as it proved to be too costly for the new state. The footballers of that time proved that the decision was wrong as India won the Gold Medal at the 1951 Asian Games, with the fans referring to the team as ‘Asian Brazilians’.
Football became a part of mainstream culture briskly as India nearly won a medal at the 1956 Olympic Games, with the Indian national team finishing fourth, followed by another gold medal at the 1962 Asian Games, defeating South Korea 2-1 in the final.
With the focus in the nation shifting to survival and economic freedom, India tailed off a bit in sports during the 1970s and the 1980s, which was reflected on the nation’s football pitches as well. After finishing as the runners-up in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup, India played only three editions of the continental competition, failing to get out of their group on all occasions.
The likes of Bhaichung Bhutia and I.M. Vijayan brought about a resurgence in Indian football, helping the nation win the silver medal in the 2003 Afro-Asian Games, with the latter finishing as the joint-highest scorer of the event with four goals, with two of those goals coming in the 5-3 win against Zimbabwe in the semi-final.
After the duo’s retirement, Sunil Chhetri took over and has scored 93 goals in 145 appearances for the Blue Tigers. The ‘Captain, Leader, and Legend’ is currently leading the line for the Blue Tigers as they aim to make it out of a tough joint qualification group for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
Match Day Madness
Football often gets the heart racing and stops the pulse rate with millions and millions of fans supporting their team from the stadium or the comfort of their homes. The loyalists have been treated to several matches, which forced them to bite their nails at every juncture of the encounter.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, India gave the toughest of fights to a Hungarian side full of stars like Erno Solymosi, Florian Albert, Janos Gorocs, and Kalman Meszoly. Albert later finished as the joint top-scorer of the 1962 FIFA World Cup, helping his side reach the quarter-final, and even went on to win the European Player of the Year award in 1967.
Grocos and Albert gave their side a 2-0 lead, but the legendary trio of skipper Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, and Pradip Kumar Banerjee haunted the Hungarian defence for the last half hour, pulling a goal back in the 79th-minute courtesy of Balaram. The Indian side ended up on the losing side but gave the Italian media and everyone across the globe a talking point.
India showed a tough fight in Doha in 2019 as they faced Qatar in a joint qualification match for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and the Blue Tigers showed their grit and determination with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu starring in the 0-0 draw against the Asian champions.
With Chhetri ill and absent for the fixture, India had to rely on defensive stalwart Sandesh Jhingan and the midfield duo of Anirudh Thapa and Rowlin Borges, who helped India snatch a crucial point which helped them make it to the group stage of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
The Road Ahead
The 2023-24 Indian Super League season will resume on November 25 with a double-header as the fans will get to witness Kerala Blasters, East Bengal, Hyderabad, and two-time champions Chennaiyin in action.
The ISL plays a big part in grooming young stars like Sahal Abdul Samad, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra, Jeakson Singh, Apuia, and Lallianzuala Chhangte key parts of their respective clubs’ teams.
Of late, the fans have started coming out in support of the Blue Tigers everywhere in the country from Kolkata to Ahmedabad as several clubs like Kerala Blasters, FC Goa, Mohun Bagan SG, East Bengal, Jamshedpur, and Odisha are attracting huge crowds every week to stadiums.
Investment in infrastructure will certainly help to develop quality players at the grassroots level, which would further aid India to compete with sides like Qatar, Uzbekistan, South Korea, and China in the near future.