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Forget the World Cup; India is writing history

Tuesday 19th June 2018

Everyone dream of watching their country play in the World Cup. For some, it is just a matter of waiting for the calendar to turn. For others, it's a close thing. For countries like India, it is far off fancy.

Except, just before the World Cup, something revolutionary took place in the city of dreams, Mumbai. Dreams weren't just made, they were fulfilled. 

Indian football hasn't been exceptional since the early 1960s, the golden era for the men in blue. There was a brief period when the Bengal prodigy, Bhaichung Chutia took Kolkata's Salt Lake stadium by storm. It was short-lived. He was ageing and more interested in politics.

Many people blamed the heat and poverty for football's decline but we all knew it wasn't the truth. African countries near the equator who have much lower GDPs than India prosper in the beautiful game. The real culprits were the rise of cricket, lack of proper infrastructure and growing competition globally. 

Between 2011 and 2015, India fell to its all-time lowest FIFA ranking, 173rd. For the Indian Colts, it was highly disappointing and demotivating. Most Indian football fans began following European clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Winners. Among a population of 1.2 billion people, only a few thousand cared about Indian football enough to follow the I-League. They were concentrated in the seven North-East states which cumulatively amount to only 5% of the country's population. It was a sorry state.

Narendra Modi won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections historically and meanwhile, a brand new, eight-team football tournament was introduced. Players like Luis Garcia, Robert Pires and Alessandro Del Piero were marquee signings Indian youngsters like Arnab Mondal and Sandesh Jhingan finally broke into the first team. Hidden talents like Jeje Lalpekhlua and Gurwinder Singh were discovered in the first edition of the Hero ISL. The average attendance of the competition was 24,357- only behind Bundesliga, Premier League and La Liga. One thing was clear- if you provide India with football, they will create a hurricane.

Bollywood superstars and former cricket players played a massive role in branding the tournament in the country. However, India failed to qualify for the World Cup, winning just a single game in the qualifiers. Between all this, a new name rose. After impressing in the I-League, it was announced the most expensive player in the ISL auctions (1.2 crores) had been purchased by Mumbai City. His name was Sunil Chhetri. 

Apart from revenue and audience, the ISL gave opportunities to young Indians to perform against top foreign players, learn and raise their game. As a result, India jumped 25 places in the 2016 FIFA rankings, to 148th. 

Everything was set. Fans were involved. Revenue was generated, The AFC sanctioned the league. They just had to carry it forward. 

The second edition of ISL was even better. Average attendance improved by roughly 3,000 per match. More Indian players were included in the rosters. Teams like Mumbai City FC and Atletico de Kolkata established private academies. India made a huge leap forward covering 43 places in the FIFA rankings, to 105th, last year. It was truly sensational. 

From losing in the WC qualifiers, India defeated teams like  Puerto Rico, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius until earlier this year where they lost 2-1 to Kyrgyzstan. Between all this, 'Captain Fantastic', Chhetri was the man behind the team. For club and country both. He has scored 77 goals both in I League and ISL for Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City FC. 

In the interim, India also hosted the U-17 FIFA World Cup. The young lads did their very best but still have ground to cover. Stars like Komal Thatal and Dheeraj Moingrathem caught everyone's attention. 

This year, India was scheduled to play three other nations- Kenya, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei in the Intercontinental Cup in front of their own crowd. In the opening game vs Chinese Taipei, Chhetri scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 win. The attendance for the game was a disappointing 2,000. The following day, Sunil uploaded a video begging fans to come to watch the team play in Mumbai Arena. He welcomed criticism and abuse, not just praise. He wanted Indians to get involved. 

The next game vs Kenya, 8,890, nearly four times the audience from the previous game, attended. Special mention to Blue Pilgrims for their unconditional support and love throughout the tournament. Chhetri scored a brace as India won 3-0.

"If we get support from people like we got in Mumbai, we'll give everything for India. It is really motivating when the stadium is jam-packed" Sunil Chhetri told ANI. 

The Blues lost the next game to New Zealand 2-1. Chhetri was the only blue shirt to fire the ball home.

India topped the group stage and faced Kenya in the finals. Two early marvellous strikes from the golden boy pulled him level with the great Lionel Messi in the international goal charts with 64 goals. He is now the second-most prolific active international behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. 

"I don't take the comparison seriously. Messi is of a different level. I'm just happy that I've scored 64 goals for my country."

This is a massive confidence boost for the Indians ahead of the Asian Cup next year. Chhetri, Jeje and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are the poster boys of Indian football and can replicate the success they achieved back in the 60s. The next step should be to play as many friendlies against top Asian teams as possible to prepare for the Asian Cup.

Jai Hind!

Harsh Vardhan

A pilot in the making residing in India, Harsh is also an ardent follower of European football and his heart resides in Manchester, particularly the blues. He has deep passion for writing, with special admiration for combined-elevens, while also contributing to the sports column of a local daily.

Total articles: 67

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