There were many moments to celebrate from the year 2021 in Indian football. The year was not like any other, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Indian footballers and national teams made their mark. From individual achievements to collective accolades, there were plenty of highlights from the year, much to the joy of football enthusiasts in India.
From Sunil Chhetri earning a National Award to Indian Super League's introduction in the popular FIFA 22 by EA Sports and more, there were many memorable milestones for Indian football.
With the year coming to its conclusion in a few days' time, it is the perfect opportunity to look back and admire the major achievements in Indian football in the past year.
Here are the Top 10 events in Indian football in 2021 curated by The Bridge:
AIFF and FSDL investment in refereeing
Troubled by the dipping standards of refereeing in Indian football, especially in the ISL, the organisers FSDL and the governing body AIFF announced an investment of over ₹10 crores across the next three years to develop the referees in the country.
Called the "Elite Referee Development Program", it aims to produce and develop elite level referees, which is a huge step in the right direction. This will make becoming a referee a lucrative option for the upcoming generations.
Manisha Kalyan's goal against Brazil
Manisha Kalyan is a major upcoming name in the women's football circuit. Indian women's national team recently toured South America to play against the likes of Brazil, Venezuela and Chile. During the game against heavyweights Brazil, India's Manisha scored a sensational equaliser to level the score at 1-1.
Although India would go on to lose the tie by 6-1, the goal itself was a major achievement by a player who also became the first Indian goal scorer at the AFC Women's Club Championship earlier.
Indian Super League NFTs
In September 2021, the ISL announced a partnership with London-based Terra Virtua Limited to launch its non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as digital collectables for the 2021-22 season. Thanks to this venture, the ISL became India's first sports league to launch a digital collectables series, making its foray into the rapidly growing NFT market.
The league's memorable highlights, player cards, in-match incidents, etc, will become available for fans to purchase and trade as digital memorabilia through Terra Virtua's marketplace.
Sandesh Jhingan's move to HNK Sibenik
Sandesh Jhingan turned a lot of heads by securing a European move when he signed for Croatian club HNK Sibenik. The centre-back signed a one-year contract with the top-tier Croatian club from ATK Mohun Bagan, thus leaving the ISL for a European experience.
India U23's performance at the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers
The Indian U23 outfit performed well at the U23 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. In their best-ever finish, the outfit secured second place in Group E after a 4-2 win on penalties against the Kyrgyz Republic.
Although, India finished in the ninth spot amongst the best second-placed teams and only the top four made it to the AFC Asian Cup main event. Having said that, a 2-1 win over Oman and the penalties win over the Kyrgyz Republic was a big moment to celebrate for the team.
Igor Stimac's contract extension
Earlier in July 2021, Indian national team head coach Igor Stimac received a contract extension which will keep him in the post until September 22. The move to extend the Croatian's stay was met with a mixed response as a big section of the fans are unhappy with the string of results under him.
However, the tactician will get to oversee his project for another year, working towards the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Bala Devi and Manisha Kalyan's awards by the AIFF
All India Football Federation conferred Bala Devi with the Women's Footballer of the Year award. The iconic striker is the first Indian woman footballer to sign a professional contract after signing with the Scottish side Rangers. She is also the first Indian woman to score in European football.
Moreover, Manisha Kalyan received the Women's Emerging Footballer of the Year award for her performances in 2020 and 2021. She is one of the best upcoming Indian footballers.
Introduction of the Indian Super League in FIFA 22
The premier league competition of India, the Indian Super League was included in the console and PC version of FIFA 22 by Electronic Arts in 2021. The highly popular football video game is played by millions around the globe and ISL's induction was a welcome move.
It gives thousands of Indian users a chance to play using their favourite ISL clubs in-game. It was a major acknowledgement of Indian football on the global level.
India's SAFF Championship 2021 triumph
The 2021 edition of the SAFF Championships saw India emerge as the winner. Hosted by the Maldives, the thirteenth edition of the tournament included the likes of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal as well. India defeated Nepal by a 3-0 scoreline and Sunil Chhetri finished as the top scorer with five goals.
Sunil Chhetri's Khel Ratna award
Sunil Chhetri became the first Indian football player to receive the prestigious Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award in 2021. The captain of the Indian national team is one of the highest active goalscorers in international football. Chhetri is the second-highest active international goalscorer with 80 goals, tied with Lionel Messi and only second to Cristiano Ronaldo who has 115 goals.
The exquisite company he finds himself in showcases the impact Chettri has had on Indian football and receiving the highest sporting honour of India was fully deserved. It was a moment of pride for the whole football fraternity and an apt recognition of Chhetri's dedication, passion and sacrifice for his country.