The Indian men’s football team had a rather successful yet underwhelming year in 2021 as they won their record-extending 8th SAFF Championship but failed to directly qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. The national team played 12 international matches, spaced out over 12 months. The first were two international friendlies – against Oman and the United Arab Emirates – in Dubai. Although Igor Stimac’s men managed to hold Oman to a 1-1 draw but were thrashed 6-0 by UAE.
The matches were in preparation for the remaining joint qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup, which were pushed back the year prior due to the coronavirus pandemic. India played Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the centralised location of Doha for their remaining 3 group games. After draws against Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the first round and losing to Oman in both legs, India’s chances looked precarious. A narrow 0-1 loss to Qatar, India got their first and only win of the group stage, as they beat Bangladesh 2-0 but ended their camping in 3rd position in the group with a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan.
With just 7 points from 8 games, India were not one of the best third-placed teams in the tournament, and hence were placed in the third round of qualification for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, as opposed to a direct berth at the tournament proper in China. Up next, for India was the 13th edition of The SAFF Championship, which were postponed twice in two years, with it finally being staged in Male, Maldives this year. In preparation again, India played Nepal in two international friendlies in Kathmandu. After being held to a 1-1 draw a disjointed Indian senior national team, banded together to get a 2-1 win in their second meeting.
The group stage of the SAFF Cup started poorly for India as they were held to a 1-1 draw by an ever-improving Bangladesh and a listless performance saw them play out a goalless draw with Sri Lanka. Needing wins, India turned on the style and got comfortable wins over Nepal (1-0) and Maldives (3-1) to secure their place in the title clash. There Nepal and bettered their record with a 3-0triumph. Indian club teams had a more eventful year as Indian Super League’s FC Goa became the Indian club to play in Asia’s premier club football tournament, after finishing atop the 2019-20 ISL points table.
The Gaurs took on Qatar’s Al Rayyan, UAE’s Al Wahda and Iran’s Persepolis in a two-legged group stage. They finished a respectable third in the group, with 3 draws and 3 losses as Edu Bedia scored the first goal, Brandon Fernandez assisted and Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem got two cleans sheets in the first two games. In fact, the Indian shot-stopper made it to the AFC Champions League Team of the season after his impressive performances and 20 saves. As for the AFC Cup, India’s ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC (after qualifying from play-offs) took on Bangladesh’s Basundhara Kings and home side Maldives’ Maziya in the South Asia Zone Group stage.
After a single leg round, ATK Mohun Bagan finished atop the group unbeaten with 2 wins and drew against Bashundhara. But in the Inter-zone play-off semi-finals, ATK Mohun Bagan crashed and burned as they were thrashed 6-0 by Uzbekistan FC Nasaf. The I-League, played behind closed doors in Kolkata and Kalyani and split into two stages, was won by Goa’s Gouklam Kerala rather comfortably as Churchill Brothers and TRAU FC finished 2nd and 3rd respectively.
NEROCA were to be relegated but were reinstated by AIFF due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation. The Indian Super League had a photo finish as Mumbai City piped ATK Mohun Bagan to win the ISL League Winners’ Shield on goal difference as well as the ISL title for the first time.
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