Argentine wunderkind Lionel Messi’s visit was undoubtedly the watershed moment for Indian football in a year during which its torchbearer Bhaichung Bhutia walked into the sunset after an illustrious career spanning a decade and a half.
Messi’s three-day stay in Kolkata created a never-seen-before buzz not only in the city of joy but the entire nation as it watched with bated breadth the 23-year-old weave his magic in front of a stadium packed to the rafters.
September 1 was a date those present at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata and the millions glued to the TV sets would not like to forget in a hurry.
Even as the Messi-led Argentine XI, including Barcelona team-mate Javier Mascherano, displayed their sorcery in the exhibition match against Venezuela, the aficionados of Indian football saw the event as a platform designed to give the sport’s profile a boost in the sub-continent.
The high-profile international match a first in India generated widespread excitement and raked in the moolah from broadcasting, sponsorship and ticket sales.
The match, part of a push to turn the country into one of the world’s major soccer powers, was telecast live in 150 countries.
Cut to the Indian footballers, it was Bhutia’s retirement that was the talk of the town.
Known as the ‘Sikkimese Sniper’ for his shooting skills, the poster boy of Indian football for a major part of the last two decades called it quits on August 24, bringing to an end an era that saw the national team qualify for the Asian Cup after a gap of 24 years besides winning two Nehru Cup titles.
It is only apt that an exhibition match against none other than German giants and four-time UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich has been scheduled on January 10 to mark Bhutia’s farewell, which will see the likes of Thomas Mueller, Frank Ribery, Phillip Lahm and Arjen Robben in action at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium here.
And it is even more appropriate that the proceeds of the match, to be called Audi Football Summit, will go to the victims of the devastating earthquake that rocked Sikkim in September.
Bhutia, who has scored a record 47 goals in 107 international appearances since his debut in 1995, is understandably honoured to be playing his farewell match against a top side like Bayern.
As far as the national team’s performance was concerned, the year kicked off on an expected note as India suffered crushing defeats at the hands of continental powerhouses like South Korea, Australia and Bahrain in the Asian Cup in Doha.
The scorelines may tell a different story, but India did manage to impress with their spirited display. The spate of injuries coupled with off-field controversies, however, made matters worse for the team, which regained some lost ground by winning the SAFF Championship earlier this month.
The reverses in Doha led to the ouster of coach Bob Houghton, who played a positive role in instilling among the players, a belief that they can do better.
No India coach had earned the amount of respect Houghton had from his players, and better communication between the Englishman and the All India Football Federation could have avoided his unceremonious exit from the country.
After giving the job to Armando Colaco for four months, the AIFF finally zeroed in on Savio Medeira, under whose guidance India triumphed in the SAFF Championship.
Star striker Sunil Chhetri made the tournament his own, scoring a record seven goals and winning the Man-of-Tournament award. He was man of the match in all the India matches, a feat that deserves mention irrespective of the tournament.
The Delhi-lad along with young striker Jeje Lalpekhuala was also called for trials by Scottish giants Rangers.
The duo impressed but probably not enough to be recruited on a contract basis.
Fittingly, it was Chhetri who was named the AIFF player of the year for his exploits in the international and domestic circuits.
In world football, Barcelona and Messi continued to dazzle.
The Catalans had a memorable year during which they won their third consecutive Liga title, the Spanish Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and their fourth Champions League title.
Barca made a mockery of Manchester United in the final of the Champions League at Wembley, and the experts felt the English giants were in fact lucky to lose 1-3.
The sport had its share of controversies too as events off the field dominated headlines around the world with allegations of corruption and bribery at FIFA, the sport’s governing body.
Most of them were the fallouts of the FIFA’s controversial 2010 decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 edition to Qatar.
President Sepp Blatter’s position was secured after his only rival, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, was forced to withdraw from the June election over allegations of bribery that later resulted in a lifetime ban from the sport.