Bengaluru FC shines in another dull year for Indian football

Bengaluru FC's runner-up finish at the AFC Cup was a rare moment of glory in what was another year of discontent for Indian football even though the national team climbed to its best FIFA rankings in the last six years.

Bengaluru FC's run to the finals of the AFC Cup was the only bright spot in an otherwise disappointing year for Indian football.   -  K.Murali Kumar

Bengaluru FC's runner-up finish at the AFC Cup was a rare moment of glory in what was another year of discontent for Indian football even though the national team climbed to its best FIFA rankings in the last six years.

Just three years into its existence, Bengaluru reached the summit clash of the AFC Cup, the continent's second tier club competition, eventually losing to Air Force Club of Iraq (1-0) to finish as runner-up.

Despite the loss, Bengaluru became the first Indian club to qualify for the final of a continental tournament. Before this, the farthest an Indian club had advanced in a continental tournament was the two AFC Cup semifinal appearances by Dempo in 2008 and East Bengal in 2013.

> Read: Bengaluru FC: Torchbearer of Indian football

If Bengaluru's exploits were the highlights, the low points were India failing to advance beyond the second stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and even worse, it had to face the ignominy of having to compete in a play-offs round to take part in the qualifying tournament of 2019 Asian Cup.

In domestic wranglings, Goan clubs Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar pulled out of the I-League to protest against a proposal of the All India Football Federation to make the Indian Super League (ISL) the country's official top competition.

Two new clubs in Chennai City FC and Minerva Punjab FC were added to the I-League which begins next month.

On the positive side, India won the SAFF Championships for the seventh time and then jumped to the highest FIFA rankings in six years (135th). Also, yet another successful ISL season saw Atletico de Kolkata lift the title for the second time in three years.

On the administrative front, national senior team coach Stephen Constantine was handed a year's extension after the end of his two-year contract while Praful Patel was re-elected AIFF President for his third consecutive term. He was also made AFC senior vice-president earlier in the year.

The country also embarked on frantic preparations for the Under-17 FIFA World Cup next year. Six venues were picked to host the matches after inspections by FIFA representatives.

The year began with India clinching the SAFF Championships, a regional tournament which the country has made its own.

The national team has won the event seven times and featured in all but one summit clash in the 11 editions so far. This year, the side clinched the top honours beating a spirited Afghanistan 2-1 in the final in Thiruvananthapuram.

Pakistan did not take part in the tournament due to internal issues. Reality soon struck after the SAFF success as India endured a disastrous campaign in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which also served as the joint qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup.

It ended its campaign at the bottom of the five-team Group D with just three points after a lone win (from eight matches) over Guam. India eventually lost to Guam, a Pacific Ocean country with less than two lakh people, in its away-leg match.

With a bottom-placed finish in the campaign, India had to compete in a play-off round to even find a place in the qualifiers of the Asian Cup. The country did eventually make it to the qualifying round of 2019 Asian Cup after beating Laos in both the home (6-1) and away (1-0) legs.