Sunil Chhetri | ANI
New Delhi: From individual achievements to collective accolades, the Indian men's football team had a thriving yet underwhelming 2021.
Winning a record-extending eighth SAFF Championship title in Maldives, but failing to qualify directly for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 scheduled in China were the highlights for the Sunil Chhetri-led team in 2021.
An important 2022 with new challenges is awaiting Indian football as the country looks set to host the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in October. Before that, they will fight for a place in the AFC Women's Asian Cup in January while the Chhetri-led men's team will play the qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup.
Indian footballing stalwarts such as Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan, Manisha Kalyan and Bala Devi re-wrote their career-defining scripts this year.
The skipper of Indian Super League (ISL) club Bengaluru FC, Chhetri imprinted his name in the history books after becoming the first Indian footballer to receive the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award, while Manisha Kalyan became the first Indian to score a goal against any Brazil side. The 20-year midfielder from Punjab received the AIFF Emerging Player of the Year award.
Chhetri, 37, had earlier been conferred with the Padma Shri Award and the Arjuna Award.
In his 19-year-long career, Chhetri has scored 80 international goals (125 matches) and is currently tied with Argentinian great Lionel Messi at second place in the all-time goal-scorers' list among active footballers, with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the chart with 115 goals.
One of the best centre-backs and a regular in the national team, Jhingan secured a move to Croatian top-flight club HNK Sibenik. Jhingan chose to move to Europe to play at a higher level in order to develop his game.
Women's team striker Bala Devi hogged the limelight after signing a professional contract with the Scottish side Rangers. She is also the first Indian woman to score in European football. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) conferred Bala Devi with the Women's Footballer of the Year award.
After the high of the eighth SAFF Championship title, it was a disappointing outing for the Indian men's team as they failed to directly qualify for the AFC Asian Cup.
The national team played 12 international matches, including two friendlies -- against Oman and the UAAE -- in Dubai. Although coach Igor Stimac's men managed to hold Oman to a 1-1 draw, they were hammered 0-6 by the UAE.
The matches were in preparation for the remaining joint qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup, but India ended their campaign at the third position in Group E. And now they will have to play the third-round matches for qualification scheduled from February to September 2022. The Blue Tigers will be looking to qualify and advance through the knockouts.
As far as Indian clubs are concerned, they are busy playing in the two major leagues -- Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League.
In ISL, ATK Mohun Bagan sacked the most successful coach of the league, Antonio Habas, mid-season after suffering too many defeats.
Troubled by the dipping standards of refereeing, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced an investment of Rs 10 crore over the next three years under the 'Elite Referee Development Programme' to produce and develop the elite-level referees.
The football governing body also extended national team head coach Stimac's contract till September 2022.
Key achievement in 2021:
Eighth SAFF Championship title, beat Nepal 3-0 in final
Key dates in 2022
* January: AFC Women's Asian Cup; Hosts: India
* February to September: AFC Men's Asian Cup Qualification 2022
* October: FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup; Hosts: India