Indian football's 2022: A sine wave of shattered dreams and occasional highs

"Girl Power" reads a banner in the stands during a match between Thailand and Vietnam in the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, a tournament hosted by India. Maryam Majd ATPImages/Getty Images

India are currently ranked 106 out of 211 nations in the Men's FIFA rankings. That's bang in the middle, and in essence, quite the opposite of the year that Indian football has had in 2022.

This was always going to be a massive year for the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and at the end of it, they come out having done their own reputation a great deal of harm (at least the previous administration did).

The Women's Asian Cup fiasco

The year began in an embarrassing fashion for the AIFF. After just one game, the Indian Women's Team was forced to withdraw from the AFC Women's Asian Cup due to a massive COVID-19 outbreak.

Hosting the Women's Asian Cup was the focus of the AIFF's women's football program for more than a year leading up to the event in January 2022. The Indian Women's League (IWL) didn't happen in 2021, and the national team went on exposure tours to six different countries in that year. While a foolproof COVID-secure bio-bubble is almost impossible to achieve, India were the only country whose tournament was wrecked by a virus outbreak.

India out of AFC Women's Asian Cup: Timeline of events and key questions

In Indian football's top-down approach, which was highlighted by hosting mega continental or world events every other year, the top had been doused with a variety of inflammatory substances and then set on flames. As ever, the least thought of entities in the ecosystem - the players - had to look on as their house burnt down and pick up the debris as well.

Fans make their presence felt in the stands

The first real high for Indian football in 2022 came on March 20, when the ISL final saw the return of fans to the stands to mark the end of two torturous bio-bubble ridden years.

What does it say about the state of the sport in the country that it was a tangible win for the Federation to see the fans back in the stands? However, it wasn't a win just for the Federation.

The Indian football watching public had had enough of empty stadia in Fatorda, Bambolim, and Vasco, so when a yellow tsunami descended on Fatorda for the final, it was the first (and one of the rare) signs of normalcy in a troubled year for the sport in this country.

Alex Ambrose

An alleged incident of sexual harassment of an Under-17 Indian footballer by the team's assistant coach, who was also the man to have led the scouting process to put the squad together, was a shameful episode that the AIFF hardly dealt with an appropriate manner.

An AIFF statement on June 30 said Ambrose had been "provisionally suspended" and also ordered to travel back to India from Italy. Three days later, the head of the AIFF's Committee of Administrators SY Quraishi tweeted that Ambrose was "sacked for sexual misconduct."

'Make Indian football a safe space for girls'

An FIR had been registered with the Dwarka Police Station in Delhi, but as usual, the AIFF failed to provide answers on how the most affected parties were dealing with the situation. But that isn't new, the players are merely an afterthought in this ecosystem.

Mumbai City FC lay down a marker amongst the continent's elite

Des Buckingham's side took Indian club football into unchartered territory, as his Mumbai City side became the first Indian club to win a match in the AFC Champions League. Mumbai, in fact, won two games, beating Iraq's Air Force Club twice.

A clear marker of how good Mumbai City's campaign was, was in that they had valid reasons to be disappointed at not making it to the knockout stages. In two matches against Abu Dhabi-based Al Jazira, Mumbai lost 0-1 and drew 0-0, but there were enough signs that they could've won both matches. Even winning one of those matches might have been enough to take them through as one of the three best group runners-up in the West region. Oh, small matter of fact, Mumbai City are currently unbeaten halfway through ISL 2022-23.

Salt Lake bounces at Asian Cup qualification

"Let's have a rendezvous soon. Until then, shobai bhalo thakben. [Everyone stay well]" - Sunil Chhetri, June 15, 2022.

That rendezvous hasn't happened yet, but for that week in June, Kolkata and the Salt Lake Stadium were very well, thanks to Sunil Chhetri (did you expect anyone else?).

It was a high week for Indian football for multiple reasons, not least of which was qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup for a second successive team. Most important, after years, maybe we found glimpses of how to answer one of Indian football's toughest questions. "Who after Sunil Chhetri?"

Try Liston Colaco? Try Sahal Abdul Samad? Maybe try the young midfield partnership of Jeakson Singh and Suresh Wangjam or the exuberant full-back pairing of Akash Mishra and Naorem Roshan Singh? The answer to life after Chhetri might just be in the collective.

That's why the week in Kolkata was special, a young Indian collective was born at the home of Indian football.

FIFA Ban

On 15 August, the AIFF had to undergo the ignominy of being suspended by FIFA due to "undue interference by a third party". In this case, the third party was the Supreme Court-appointed CoA (Committee of Administrators).

FIFA and the AFC had no issues with the Supreme Court's initial intervention to appoint a CoA to handle the AIFF, and were also singing off the same hymn sheet, when they agreed to the finalisation of the AIFF Draft Constitution being followed by elections in September.

FIFA bans AIFF: What went wrong in the span of a month?

However, early in August, the Supreme Court mandated the CoA to conduct elections first and then finalise the constitution. The CoA also named 36 eminent footballers in the AIFF Executive Committee - in line with their recommendation of 50% representation, which was against what FIFA had stipulated. This deviation from the roadmap and the inclusion of those eminent players was construed by the world governing body as undue interference, and the AIFF was suspended.

In short, the CoA was told by FIFA that some of their decisions were unacceptable, they still went ahead and did it, and then somehow were shocked that FIFA went ahead with the suspension order. Make it make sense.

The suspension lasted 11 days, the Supreme Court and the CoA relented to agree to all of FIFA's demands. In September, former goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey took charge as AIFF President, having gotten the better of the legendary striker Bhaichung Bhutia in the elections.

FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup ends with a whimper

Just like the Men's Under-17 FIFA World Cup five years ago, hosts India finished the 2022 women's edition as the worst team in the competition. In three games, India lost 8-0 to the USA, 3-0 to Morocco, and 5-0 to Brazil.

In analysing where it went wrong, head coach Thomas Dennerby said the issue wasn't with fitness, but that the Indians were not of the technical level required to compete in these events.

FIFA U17 World Cup lessons: Players show promise, can AIFF keep theirs?

When the country has a senior women's league that runs barely a couple of months, the pitiable state of junior women's football is only too obvious. How do you prepare a team, in a country with barely any footballing ecosystem, for a World Cup in five months? An impossible ask. Dennerby and his team, led by Astam Oraon, did the best they could, but it was nowhere near enough.

Maybe, one positive from the U17 Women's World Cup was forcing the AIFF to accept that their approach needed an overhaul.

Winds of change?

In December, the AIFF withdrew their bid to host the 2027 AFC Men's Asian Cup. It is a welcome development, if it means the AIFF shifts its priorities to the ecosystem and the football pyramid. The top-down approach of hosting world and continental events and seeing Indian teams get embarrassed in them clearly wasn't working, and it was a case of better late than never, that the AIFF's focus shifted.

"Our current focus is building the foundations of a proper footballing structure before thinking of hosting bigger events like the AFC Asian Cup," the Executive Committee said in a statement. Viva Executive Committee!

One thing is clear, 2022 was a year that Indian Women's Football would like to erase from memory. Generally, the federation's apathy compounded issues for Women's Football as well. In 2023, with a former footballer at the helm of the federation, maybe it's time that Indian (specifically women) footballers feel that they are an integral part of the system, feel that the system has their best interests at its core, feel that the system can protect them, and not have to look at their own house burning while having to pick up the debris.