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India aims to become an Asian football power

John Duerden
November 16, 2021

India has become one of Asia's top 20 football teams, partly thanks to the growth of the Indian Super League. For the country to reach the top 10, more needs to be done in the short, medium and long term.

Indian players after FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Preliminary Joint Qualification football match against Qatar in Doha
India is making tentative steps to become a force to be reckoned with in Asian footballImage: Nikku/Xinhua/picture alliance

After India defeated Nepal in October to become champions of South Asia for an eighth time, head coach Igor Stimac said winning regional tournaments was no longer India's goal: The aim now is to become a force in Asian football. India may not yet be a continental force, but, compared with just a decade ago, the country is at least a continental presence.

In qualification for the 2022 World Cup, India finished third in its five-team group, behind Qatar, drawing 0-0 at the home of the Asian champions along the way, and Oman. At youth level, there are also encouraging signs: The under-23 team performed well in qualification for the 2022 Asian Championships in October, finishing above Oman and Kyrgyzstan.

At the club level in 2021, Goa FC became the first side from the country to participate in the group stage of the AFC Champions League, Asia's premier club competition, finishing third, above Al-Rayyan of Qatar.

"India has made a lot of progress over the last five years," Parth Jindal, CEO of Indian Super League (ISL) club Bengaluru FC, told DW. "The first goal has to be to get into the top 10 of Asia and then compete with the likes of Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran."

Football coach Igor Stimac kneeling on a pitch
Former Croatia defender Igor Stimac took over as coach of the Indian national team in 2019Image: Nikku/Xinhua/picture alliance

As of October 2021, India was ranked 106 in the world, 19th out of 46 Asian nations, by world governing body FIFA.

The Indian Super League

The domestic scene has changed. In 2019, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided that the Indian Super League (ISL) would replace the I-League as the top tier of the country's football pyramid. The ISL was born five years earlier as a standalone tournament, with eight teams that signed famous players such as World Cup winning Europeans Alessandro Del Piero and Robert Pires, the likes of whom brought glamor and attention that the relatively low-key I-league could not compete with.

"The ISL has brought a lot of money and investment," said Jindal. "Our infrastructure has really improved, we have high quality training grounds and stadiums across the country now." The arrival of big stars from Europe and South America helped on and off the pitch. "It is being televised well and has brought a lot more awareness."

The kids are the future

Perhaps most importantly, ISL teams are laying the groundwork for future success, according to Jindal. "Clubs are investing in grassroots in India now and that wasn't happening before."

This has had results, according to Baljit Rihal, CEO of Inventive Sports, an agency that specializes in Indian football.

"You could see the professional structure improve straight away with the establishment of the ISL," said Rihal. "There were various things in place in terms of coaches and sports scientists. I have been involved in it and the level of Indian players has improved quite drastically." 

The 2021-22 ISL season kicks off on Friday and offers more encouragement. This season there will be one fewer foreign player allowed, down from five to four, and this makes teams more dependent on Indian players, who will now have more game time.

Better young players playing more competitive games under better coaches and training in better facilities is certainly a positive step.

Work to be done

There are many more to be taken however. When the new season kicks off, it will be a full eight months since the last campaign ended, almost three times the downtime enjoyed in major European leagues. COVID-19 may have limited cup competitions that had been introduced in pre-pandemic days, but despite the expansion of teams from eight to 11, more are needed.

"Our league is way too short," Jindal said. "The ISL runs for five months at the most. With 11 teams in the league, 20 games are not enough."

Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli runs after playing a shot
Cricket remains by far the most popular sport in IndiaImage: Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Another reason to grow the ISL is so that it covers the whole Indian subcontinent. The popularity of the game has spread beyond the traditional centers of Kolkata, Mumbai and the south of the country but the league does not fully reflect this growth. Hundreds of millions of potential fans and sponsors are left without a team to support.

"The ISL does not represent the entire country with most clubs from the south, east or west,"said Jindal. "There is little presence in the central or northern areas. Big states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are not represented in the league."

With no promotion or relegation between the ISL and the rest of the football leagues, there is no path for clubs from these states to rise to the top tier. The AIFF has promised to change this for the 2024-25 season.

There would be other benefits to doing so. Even as an owner in the ISL, Jindal wants movement between the leagues.

"You can win the I-League but you don't get into the ISL, so there is no incentive for clubs to do better. In the ISL too, we had a terrible season last time but once we knew that we could not finish in the top four and the playoffs, it didn't matter where we finished; sixth, eighth or bottom."

International moves

The pressure of relegation and the rewards of promotion would force clubs to invest and improve and produce better players. The next step then would be Indian talent following the examples from South Korea and Japan to head to Europe. Exports have been rare so far with only Gupreet Singh making any kind of impact. The goalkeeper spent three years with Norwegian team Stabaek before returning home in 2017.

"Playing in Europe would improve Indian players and they would then come home to help India improve too," said Rihal. "It is sometimes easier if they go abroad when they are young and don't get too comfortable at home. To see Indian players in European leagues in the long-term would be another positive sign for Indian football."

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Edited by: Matthew Pearson