2016 started on a hopeful note for Indian football. Incidentally, the year ends with the same emotion among those who follow the domestic version of the sport.
Five stadiums in New Delhi, Navi Mumbai, Kochi, Margao and Guwahati were approved by FIFA for the U-17 World Cup that is to be held in October 2017.
Since finishing 2015 on a disappointing 166th place in FIFA rankings, India end 2016 at 135th position, thus jumping 31 places in a year. It is also India’s highest FIFA ranking in six years. This jump has been fueled by India’s SAFF Cup victory. It is also due to an improved showing in international friendlies, most notably the 4-1 thumping of 114th ranked Puerto Rico in Mumbai.
Even then, the World Cup remained an elusive dream for India as they crashed out of Russia 2018 qualifiers. India finished bottom of their group table with just three points that came off their lone victory over Guam.
On the domestic front, Bengaluru FC once again triumphed over established clubs like Mohun Bagan to retain the I-League title. Even then, the I-League remained a competition played in relative obscurity compared to the glitz and glamour of the Indian Super League (ISL).
Bengaluru FC later upstaged their incredible domination of AIFF’s flagship tournament. Not only did they fulfill the criteria for competing in the the AFC Cup, they went on a rampaging run that ended only in the final match of the tournament against Iraq’s Al Quwa Al Jawiya or Air Force Club.
It was the first time any Indian club had reached the final of a continental tournament. Bengaluru FC have thus continued to confound football observers by managing the feat despite the fact that they were formed only in 2013. They have now got two domestic league titles, one Federation Cup title and continental runners-up medals, all in their first three years of existence.
While Bengaluru FC went from strength-to-strength, clubs like Salgaocar, Sporting club de Goa and Goa’s iconic Dempo SC announced their withdrawal from the I-League for the following season.
Dempo and Sporting cited the proposed new league structure in India as the reason for their pullout. The AIFF confirmed in December that the I-League and the ISL is set to be merged following the FIFA U-17 World Cup in October.
The new league will have ISL franchises and few I-League clubs who can compete on the same financial footing. The existing two-tier I-League will play as the second and third tiers. For the first few years, there will be promotion and demotion between the two lower tiers only. It is this point that clubs like Dempo seem to be opposed to.
The AIFF’s proposed league structure has been met with a mixed response. While some are lauding the fact that the ISL will be held over a longer period, many are averse to the possibility of India’s traditional clubs like East Bengal not playing top-tier football. The Kolkata derby may not happen in a league system for some time due to the two clubs playing in different leagues.
Finally the Indian Super League had another successful year with Atletico de Kolkata claiming the title for a second time. This season saw the emergence of several Indian players, most notably CK Vineeth, Jeje Lalpekhua and Jerry. The 2016 edition threw one of the most unpredictable league stages so far into the competition’s short span. At the end of it, Mumbai City FC managed a semi final spot for the first time while 2015 champions Chennaiyin FC and runners up FC Goa finished second bottom and bottom of the table respectively.
Praful Patel was elected as the AIFF President for a third consecutive term. In December, the AIFF also won the AFC Developing Member Award.