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'Happy New Year' - What can Indian Football look forward to in 2018?

14:47 SAST 2018/01/01
Indian National team training session
As we welcome 2018 with festivities and cheer, Goal takes a look at what 2018 holds in store for Indian football...

Most of us will agree that 2017 was a very promising year for Indian football. Not only did the national team qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup on merit, the team rose meteorically in the FIFA Rankings and even broke into the top 100 at one point. 

But the most memorable event of the year was the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup, with the country hosting its first ever FIFA tournament. Not only did we acquit ourselves well with the facilities and organisation, we also witnessed an Indian team play in a World Cup for the first time ever. And to sweeten things further, a 17-year-old Jeakson Singh created history by scoring a goal in the tournament. 

After such highs, 2018 promises to take Indian football further down the road towards the ultimate aim of the country qualifying for the senior World Cup. So, what does the new year hold in store for us? 

Blue Tigers' preparation for 2019 Asian Cup

Having qualified for the next edition of the continent's biggest tournament, the Indian national team will be hard-pressed to ensure they put up a creditable show UAE in 2019. India are set to play Kyrgyzstan on 27th March 2018 to wrap up their qualification campaign despite already clinching progress. What we can look forward to after March will be who India will play friendlies with to prepare for the showpiece event in 2019. 

How Stephen Constantine moulds the squad will be interesting and India's performances in those matches will have a say in the rankings. Will the Englishman blood more promising youngsters in the team? Will India's rankings sky-rocket to an all-time high? 2018 is set to be an interesting year! 

A longer domestic season

Another promising development in 2017 in Indian football was the expansion of the Indian Super League (ISL) from a two-and-a-half months-long league to a four-months long one. It was a step in the right direction but in 2018, we can expect an even longer ISL.

As the country slowly meanders towards a unified league, an even longer ISL bodes well for the game in India. Not only can the league attract quality players from abroad, the conditioning and standards of Indian players will also rise. 

2018 AFC U16 Championship

The AFC U16 Championship set to be held in Malaysia in 2018 is another important event for Indian football fans to look forward to. India are one of the 16 teams to have qualified for the event which means if the Blue Colts manage to finish in the top four, they will automatically qualify for the 2019 FIFA U17 World Cup - a sign of marked progress for the game in the country. 

India qualified after finishing as runners-up in their qualifying group involving Iraq, Palestine and Nepal. As a result, India are placed in Pot 3 for the draw for the tournament. It will be something the country will look forward to in September 2018. Who knows, we might as well catch the first glimpse of future stars of Indian football in Malaysia. 

Progression of Indian Arrows

The Indian Arrows project, re-instated by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which comprises of the stars from the India U17 team which participated in the FIFA U17 World Cup has garnered a lot of appreciation these days. The youngsters, rubbing shoulders with senior professionals, both Indian and foreign, have performed admirably in the ongoing I-League season so far. 

They have already won two games and have held Mohun Bagan to a draw under the guidance of coach Luis Norton de Matos. How these youngsters evolve and perform as they get regular game time at a very high level will be something the fans will be eagerly watching in 2018. For many of them might go on to form the spine of the senior national team in the future. 

The future of I-League? 

While the ISL has been going from strength to strength, the I-League which is running simultaneously to the ISL this time around has been floundering in mediocrity with respect to the facilities, pitches, standard of football and even the quality of players. 2018 will come with a huge question mark hanging over the 'India's top-tier' league! 

The AIFF had trouble finding new teams this time around for the league, with Gokulam Kerala ultimately coming into the league. But judging by how it has fared so far in comparison with the ISL, what remains to be seen is if the I-League will keep its status as the premier league of the country in 2018?