The Indian men’s soccer team had a moderately successful but disappointing year in 2021 as they won their record-extending 8th SAFF Championship but did not qualify directly for the AFC Asian Cup. The national team played 12 international matches, spread over 12 months. The first were two international friendlies – against Oman and the United Arab Emirates – in Dubai. Though Igor Stimac’s men managed to hold Oman to a 1-1 draw but were thrashed 6-0 by the UAE.
The matches were in preparation for the remaining joint qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, which were postponed the year before due to the coronavirus pandemic. India played Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the central location of Doha for their remaining 3 group matches. After a first-round draw against Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and a loss to Oman in both legs, India’s chances looked precarious. A narrow 0-1 defeat to Qatar, India secured their first and only group stage win when they defeated Bangladesh 2-0, but finished their camp in third place in the group with a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan.
With only 7 points from 8 matches, India was not one of the top third-placed teams in the tournament, and therefore was placed in the third round of qualifying for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, as opposed to a direct berth at the actual tournament. in China. Next up was India’s 13th edition of The SAFF Championship, which has been postponed twice in two years, and this year will finally be held in Male, Maldives. In preparation, India again played against Nepal in two international friendlies in Kathmandu. After being held to a 1-1 draw, a disjointed Indian senior national team united to take a 2-1 win in their second meeting.
The SAFF Cup group stage started badly for India as they were held to a 1-1 draw by an improving Bangladesh and a lackluster performance saw them draw a goalless draw with Sri Lanka. India needed wins, turned on the style and took comfortable victories over Nepal (1-0) and the Maldives (3-1) to secure their place in the title fight. There, Nepal improved their record with a 3-0 triumph. 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 at the top of 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. The Indian shot-stopper even made it to the AFC Champions League Team of the Season after his impressive performance and 20 saves. As for the AFC Cup, India’s ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC (after qualifying for play-offs) took on Bangladeshi home team Basundhara Kings and Maziya of the Maldives home side in the South Asian Zone Group Stage.
After a single leg round, ATK Mohun Bagan finished undefeated at the top of the group with 2 wins and a draw against Bashundhara. But in the semifinals of the interzone play-off, ATK Mohun Bagan crashed and burned when they were thrashed 6-0 by Uzbekistan FC Nasaf. Played behind closed doors in Kolkata and Kalyani and split into two stages, the I-League was won quite comfortably by Goa’s Gouklam Kerala as Churchill Brothers and TRAU FC finished 2nd and 3rd respectively.
NEROCA was supposed to be relegated but was reinstated by AIFF due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation. The Indian Super League had a photo finish as Mumbai City defeated ATK Mohun Bagan for the first time to win the ISL League Winners’ Shield on goal difference, as well as the ISL title.
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