From Asian Cup qualification to SAFF C’ships success: Indian football on the rise in 75th year of independence

India have come leaps and bounds as a nation since acquiring independence in 1947 and as its people celebrate 75 years of free India, football in the country has given them a reason to smile.

Indian football has had its share of ups and downs over the years but it has followed an upward trajectory in the last decade. Securing qualification for back-to-back AFC Asian Cups, seeing its clubs play the AFC Champions League and watching some of the biggest names in world football grace the Indian shores to play in the inaugural Hero Indian Super League (ISL) have been few of the notable feats in the last few years.

The 75th year of India’s independence has especially given fans hope for a bright future with a series of positive achievements be it with the men’s and women’s national teams, the Hero ISL and the other domestic tournaments.

Here’s a recap of how Indian football fared in India’s 75th year of independence:

Indians shine in Hero ISL 2021-22

The 2021-22 season of the Hero ISL was special in more ways than one but nothing would have pleased the Indian fans than Indian attackers making their presence felt as they scored 120 goals – the first time the tally crossed the 100 mark.

Indian contribution in attack was not just limited to scoring more goals than before, they also created a lot more for their teammates as they provided a record 107 assists in Hero ISL 2021-22.

Another promising sign was the involvement of younger players at the top end of the field. U-23 players have produced 38 goals and 34 assists in this edition of the Hero ISL, which is the highest goal contribution by U-23 players in Hero ISL history.

Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan make a mark in Asia

Mumbai City FC may not have had the best of seasons in the Hero ISL but they more than made it up in the AFC Champions League. The Islanders became the first Indian team ever to record a win in the AFC Champions League when they beat Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya 2-1 in the group stage of the AFC Cup before repeating that feat in the reverse game to finish the group with seven points and in the second spot which was the best performance by an Indian club in Asia’s premier club competition. Rahul Bheke who scored against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya became the first Indian to score a goal in the AFC Champions League.

In the AFC Cup, ATK Mohun Bagan reached the Inter-Zone Semi-finals in some style and were dominant for most parts of the campaign. The Mariners scored big wins over Sri Lanka’s Blue Star SC, Bangladesh’s Abahani Dhaka and Bashundhara Kings and Maldives’ Maziya S&RC to overcome a setback against Gokulam Kerala and reach the Inter-Zone semi-finals where they will face the winners of the ASEAN Zone final.

India qualify for back-to-back AFC Asian Cups

One of the biggest highlights of the year was India’s performance in the AFC Asian Cup third-round qualifiers which saw them make the cut for back-to-back AFC Asian Cup finals for the first time in their history.

The Blue Tigers started the campaign with a clinical performance in a 2-0 win over Cambodia before edging out Afghanistan in a dramatic contest. Sahal Abdul Samad scored a stoppage-time winner to send the packed Salt Lake stadium crowd into pandemonium. The Blue Tigers then wrapped up the qualification with a swagger as they swept aside Hong Kong 4-0 in a game which saw India play some beautiful football that left the fans in awe.

Having created history by reaching the Asian Cup finals for the second time in a row, the Blue Tigers would want to reach the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time ever.

Kerala Blasters FC and Bengaluru FC feature in the Next Gen Cup in the UK

The Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL) gave the young players a great opportunity to impress, learn and have a shot at a place in their respective first teams. Many young players were able to showcase their talent in the league. But the biggest opportunity was afforded to champions Bengaluru FC and runners-up Kerala Blasters FC who earned a ticket to the Next Gen Cup in the UK.

BFC and KBFC got the chance to run shoulders against youth teams of Premier League clubs in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Blues faced Leicester City FC and Nottingham Forest while KBFC played against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace during the tournament. Even though all games ended in defeats for the Indian sides, they became richer with the experience of facing such high-quality teams that are sure to serve them better in their careers. Getting opportunities to visit academies of Premier League teams and have a chat with legends like Jermaine Defoe and Wes Morgan was an added bonus.

Kerala win Santosh Trophy

Kerala’s triumph in the 2022 Santosh Trophy in front of their own fans was one of the most beautiful moments in Indian football as it brought to the fore the passion for the sport in the south Indian state.

Kerala got better of arch-rivals Bengal in a tense penalty shootout to win the trophy for the seventh time in their history and for the second time in the last three editions.

The win came just months after Kerala Blasters FC had narrowly lost to Hyderabad FC in the final of the Hero ISL.

In football, you win some and you lose some but football in Kerala is only going one way and that’s up.

Manisha Kalyan and Dangmei Grace join foreign clubs

Women’s football in India has seen a huge surge in interest with the nation hosting the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2022 and with the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup on the horizon. The Indian women’s national team have impressed with their performances over the last years as they got a chance to play against the likes of Brazil.

The performances of the players have not got unnoticed as Manisha Kalyan and Dangmei Grace got offers from foreign clubs. Kalyan joined Cyprus’ Apollon Ladies FC while Grace signed for Uzbekistan’s PFC Sevinch Karshi.

The duo has already scored their first goals for their overseas teams and are continuing to make progress in their careers.

India win senior and U-21 SAFF Championships

The Blue Tigers won the 2021 SAFF Championship overcoming a slow start after they drew with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in their opening two matches. India came back strongly to beat Maldives and Nepal to reach the final and then get the better of Nepal again in the final to win their eighth title and a first since 2015.

The U-20 side too had to digest early setbacks to win the U-20 SAFF Championship earlier this month. The Blue Tigers lost to Bangladesh in the group stages to finish second but got the better of the same opponents after extra-time in the final to defend their title.

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