Success in Asia is something that Indian football clubs have dreamt for years. Only a few Indian clubs can claim to have treaded the Asian waters that we now recognize as AFC Champions League and AFC Cup. In fact, no club has ever managed to qualify for the AFC Champions League group stages.
In 2016, Bengaluru FC reached the final of the AFC Cup and lost 0-1 to Iraqi club Al-Quwa-Al-Jawiya and that remains an Indian club's most successful result in Asia to date. Even now, AFC Champions League group stage remains unchartered territory for Indian clubs but that is the level clubs should aspire to be at.
There is a starting point for all objectives that are laid out in football and for India, the next step is getting into the group stages of AFC Champions League. While the recent results of Indian clubs in Asia aren't encouraging, the Indian football setup as a whole is desperate for an improvement in quality.
If Indian Super League (ISL) clubs like ATK can attract top talents from A-League such as the Australian league's top scorer Roy Krishna and midfielder Dario Vidosic, there is going to be an overall rise in quality of the league that most Indian players want to be a part of, inadvertently or otherwise. NorthEast United recently announced the signing of Asamoah Gyan, which is no mean feat either. The former African Player of the Year is the all-time topscorer of Ghana and has notable stints in Premier League among other top European Leagues. He has also played three World Cups and his addition will only improve the standard of ISL.
The same applies to I-League clubs as well. According to the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) proposal to the AFC, both ISL and I-League are set to run parallelly for another three years and for that duration, both leagues will get a qualification spot each for AFC tournaments.
"There is a historical issue with Indian football, within that framework, I feel a reasonable two to three years window should be given for I-League also to be continuing. I cannot give you any assurance yet because I have to talk to the AFC. AFC also have to agree to what I am saying. It may be our wish but AFC will have to agree," AIFF President Praful Patel had said earlier this year.
Two of India's most exciting talents in recent years, Amarjit Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad, had their break at AIFF's developmental team Indian Arrows that plays in I-League and ISL club Kerala Blasters respectively. Both players have already impressed national team coach Igor Stimac and are now regulars in the Indian national team.
The national team also has achieved a set of impressive results in the last two years - holding China and Asian Cup champions Qatar to a draw are at the top of the pile. There has been a notable change of philosophy under new coach Igor Stimac as well. And while that will take time to perfect, it bodes well for the future in terms of raising India's standards to compete in Asia.
India had also beaten Thailand twice this year. Now, Thai clubs play in the AFC Champions League since 2002. And so are the best clubs from Qatar and China. Guangzhou Evergrande has won the competition while Qatari clubs like Al Duhail and Al Sadd are always favourites for the continent's top gong.
There is a lot of work to be done for India, especially at the grassroots. However, it is time for Indian clubs to think of competing at the group stages of the AFC Champions League. Because that is what is in store for the clubs, sooner or later.