From the disappointment due to the cancellation of multiple leagues to finally being able to get the top division up and running again, 2020 has been a challenging year for men’s football in India.
Fortunately for the 2019-20 season of Indian Super League (ISL), the final took place a week before the country went into a lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic and ATK bagged their third trophy at the expense of Chennaiyin. But football as a whole was impacted due to the unforeseen situation in the country.
Although ISL ended in March, there was still the matter of I-League which was ultimately cut short after 16 games. Mohun Bagan, who had an unassailable lead in the standings, were announced as the champions.
It was sad news for young footballers as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was forced to cancel all age-category tournaments because it was not deemed safe to organize them as India battled Covid-19.
However, it wasn’t all darkness for Indian men’s football as months later, the players returned to action with the I-League qualifiers which ended up being the first sporting action in the country since the pandemic struck. With strict safely protocols and bio-secure bubbles in place, the Indian FA held the qualifiers in place of the I-League second division at a centralised venue in Kolkata.
Less than two months later, the 2020-21 season of Indian Super League kicked off in Goa, once again with teams abiding COVID-19 guidelines established by the league authorities in accordance with the Indian health ministry. The biggest losers, however, were supporters as they have had to sit at home and consume football digitally as the matches continue to be held behind closed doors due to the circumstances.
It was not just on the pitch where mixed emotions prevailed. Off it, Indian football bid adieu to legends of the game PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Nikhil Nundy among others. The AFC Cup 2020 had to be cancelled and the AFC U-16 Championship had to be postponed to 2021, keeping the safety of the stakeholders in mind.
On the other hand, Indian football witnessed a historic deal take place when Kolkata giants and I-League champions Mohun Bagan and ISL champions ATK enter into a merger. The result was a new entity named ATK Mohun Bagan that mostly retained the colours and essence of Mariners and players of ATK.
Arguably, the biggest ‘event’ of the year came a few months later when East Bengal announced its entry into the ISL. The league’s profile received an immediate boost and ISL’s first Kolkata Derby was held behind closed doors in Goa in November. The Red and Golds appointed former Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler as their head coach.
For most of the year, the Indian national team were ranked 108th in the FIFA rankings but they will sign off as 104th best team in the world. Igor Stimac’s men were to host Qatar and Afghanistan in the group stages of the AFC Asian Cup and FIFA joint qualifiers in March. However, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the fixtures which were initially postponed to October, are now set to take place in March and June 2021.
There were some remarkable events in Indian football this year. There were a few forgettable ones as well. But the promises of 2021 are sure to offset the disappointments of 2020.