Year-end Special: Top 5 positives in Indian football

As we walk into 2014, Goal looks back to list down the top 5 positives we take from the last year.
 Atanu Mitra
 COMMENT | India
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The year 2013 rekindled hopes of India finally being provided with the impetus they had been craving for long in order to take its first major step towards being recognised as a football playing nation. Let's take a look at the top five positive events that happened in Indian football.

5. I-League improving in almost all aspects

The nation's top tier competition took a turn for the better, with the quality of football and the brouhaha about it gaining momentum. Though the last few seasons had seen fanatics waning and empty stands at most of the venues, this season the attendances have been on the rise.

The images of a choc-a-bloc Bengaluru FC’s home stadium was one of the best advertisements of the league this year.  Fans turned up in numbers to watch matches of Mohammedan Sporting, Rangdajied United and Shillong Lajong.

The quality of football has also improved in the league with a number of teams attempting to play a ‘pass-and-move’ brand of football giving the fans some much needed relief from the haywire long-balls. Sporting Clube de Goa and United Sports Club have been the torch-bearers on that front.

Players like Carlos Hernandez have graced Indian football

Former World-Cuppers Cornell Glen and Carlos Hernandez dazzled on the turf oozing class, while footballers like Mustapha Riga (ex-Levante), John Johnson (ex-Middlesbrough), Calum Angus (youth product of Portsmouth) and Arturo Garcia (former Valencia youth academy product) also plied their trade in the I-League. The standard of foreign players roped in has gone up and with only a slender 8-point gap between the third and tenth placed side, this is also turning out to be the most competitive I-League ever.

4. Bengaluru FC is born

When the All India Football Federation (AIFF) declared that Bengaluru FC wouldn’t have to bother about relegation, there were quite a few clubs who didn’t vouch for this idea. But the JSW-owned outfit showed commendable alacrity from day one and their prudent moves gave an instant indication that they would become a major force to reckon with in Indian football in no time.

First, they brought in a quality gaffer in Ashley Westwood, who was part of Manchester United's FA Youth Cup winning side in 1995 and had stints as part of the coaching stuff in clubs like Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers. The signing of Sunil Chhetri, the captain of the Indian national team was also a major summer coup for them, besides garnering the signatures of a number of young Indian players who were eager to get the taste of regular first-team action. A professional approach and an inspired squad gelled well for the rookies and they ended the year in the pole position of the I-League table.

Bengaluru FC is the surprise package this year

Off the field also, they promoted their club well with hoardings and cut-outs of footballers being placed at key locations in the city. They catered well to the football enthusiasts of Bengaluru and became an instant hit, as the hysteria could be seen throughout the campaign so far. Match screenings and tours for the away matches were not common in Indian football and Bengaluru FC have certainly shown the way. If this dream run of Bengaluru continues, the age-old clubs from Kolkata and Goa will have to learn from the newly formed outfit as opposed to the other way around.

3. AIFF's grassroot development programme

The governing body of the sports in India did a commendable job in grassroot development, as they conducted various courses across the country to train and nurture young talent. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) listed India as one of the nominees for the Grassroots Football award in recognition of their efforts in spurring the growth of grassroots football. The work done under the tutelage of Robert Baan, technical director of India and Scott O'Donnel, director of coach education, has been reaping rewards.

The U-16 National Team after winning the SAFF Championship

The U-16 national team also made the country proud as they won the bragging rights at the SAFF Championship in 2013.
2. East Bengal and Pune FC set new Indian records
2. East Bengal and Pune FC

In the continental level, the Red and Gold had a dream run as they made it to the semi-finals of the AFC Cup, becoming the second Indian club after Dempo SC to achieve the feat. They were also unbeaten for the first nine matches of the competition, and were the only team to not taste defeat before the semi-finals. The journey started with Trevor James Morgan, who made amends for the club's 12-match winless streak under his tutelage in the previous two editions of the AFC Cup and took the team to the quarter-finals. After his exit, Marcos Falopa took over the reins and guided the club to a triumph over Indonesia’s Semen Padang in the last eight.

Though the Kolkata based outfit surrendered before a much superior Kuwait SC in the semi finals, it was arguably the biggest achievement of any Indian club in 2013. More than 65,000 turned up to support the team against the Kuwait SC, which was also a breather for the city that is often alleged to fill stadiums only on the days of local derbies.

East Bengal made the country proud 

Another big news was of Pune FC earning the opportunity to play the AFC Champions League play-offs, after fulfilling the Club Licensing Criterion. The club will now face Vietnamese Hanoi T&T in the first round for play-offs on 2nd February this year. The Red Lizards have been a trend-setter in terms of their modern approach and professionalism in running the club and that has started to pay off as they now have this unique opportunity after becoming the runners-up in the I-League last season.

1. India winning bid to host U-17 World Cup

The best news of the year came on 5th December, when FIFA officially declared that India will be the hosts of 2017 U-17 World Cup. This would mean that the infrastructure in as many as eight venues will improve and that shall benefit the clubs too in the long run.

India have also automatically qualified as one of the participating countries of the coveted championship as hosts, and that should kick-start a revolution at youth level in order to search for the best talent.

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