On Thursday, the Indian football team achieved its highest ranking in more than two decades after it was placed 101st in the world. It’s a massive jump of 72 places in just two years for Stephen Constantine’s side. The Indian Express explains how the team moved up the charts and if the latest rankings are an accurate representation of the team’s potential.
How seriously should this be taken?
It is always tricky to read too much into the FIFA rankings, which does not necessarily reflect the true potential of a team. But more often than not, a team gets harshly criticised when its ranking slides. So if India gets repeatedly panned for languishing at 173rd a couple of years ago, then it is only fair that credit is given where due. However, some restraint advised.
India is now 11th in Asia, above heavyweights like Iraq, Jordan, Oman and North Korea. Does it mean India is better than these nations?
Not really. The rankings are not a true reflection of where Indian football stands in Asia. Iraq, for instance, beat Asia’s top-ranked side Iran 1-0 last month and followed it up with 1-1 draw against Australia. Yet, they could gain only five places. Their slump before the Iran game meant they are ranked 119. The gap between India and Iraq was, in a way, visible when Bengaluru FC played the final of AFC Cup last year against Iraqi club Al Quwa Al Jawiya, where the Indian side was completely outplayed. Oman, meanwhile, were in the same group as India in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and while India gave them a scare in the home match, they comfortably won the return leg. North Korea (who played the 2010 World Cup) and Jordan have constantly punched above their weights and India have struggled against both these teams historically.
So if the team is not as good as rankings suggest, what explains India’s rise?
The reasons for India’s surge are twofold. Every month, FIFA extends ranking points to countries depending on the outcome of the matches they play. The points are calculated on the basis of multiple parameters but the weightage for a World Cup or a continental championship qualifier is three times more than a routine friendly.
For March 2017, India earned a total of 331 points mainly because of wins over Cambodia in a friendly and Myanmar in an Asian Cup qualifier. The twin wins, rare for the national team, helped in accumulating crucial points and jump from 132 last month to 101. Results of other matches also play a role. If Bolivia hadn’t beaten Argentina last week, then India would’ve been placed at 97. Apart from this, the backroom staff of the All India Football Federation indulged in some smart number crunching, which also played a role.
What’s this ‘number crunching’?
Between September 2016 and January 2017, India jumped 23 places without even kicking a ball. Since beating higher-ranked Puerto Rico last September, India did not play a single match for almost six months until facing Cambodia last month. That ensured the team did not lose points, and places, while at the same time, the weightage carried forward from corresponding months in the previous years helped the team move up the rankings. It’s a loophole in the ranking system which many teams have taken advantage of – Wales, Romania and Switzerland being the most recent examples.
So if rankings misrepresent a team’s potential, what’s a better way to read a team’s improvement?
It’s best to read the trends. Even though 101 might be a slightly exaggerated, the results on field have been encouraging. Bengaluru FC, which has half-a-dozen national team players, reaching the final of the AFC Cup last year was one indication. Most importantly, the national team’s fortunes have been on an upswing. India have won 11 out of their last 13 matches and the young side is forging a reputation of being a tough team to beat, which is an improvement for a team that was seen as too soft and miserable on road.
The matches against Cambodia and Myanmar last month could easily have ended in defeats but India gritted it out, and took the few chances that came their way and recorded impressive away wins. The win in Cambodia was India’s first away win in a friendly in more than a decade while Sunil Chhetri’s late goal helped the team win its first match in Myanmar after 64 years.
What’s next for the national team?
June will be a crucial month. India will first play Lebanon in a friendly on June 7 followed by Asian Cup qualifier against Kyrgyzstan on June 13. These are two tricky fixtures and will show if the team is actually worthy of being 101 in the world. If they win, the team will move into the top-100. At the same time, a defeat could see a steep fall.
The Kyrgyzstan match would be even more crucial as it carries more ranking points. But more than that, it would be crucial in determining if India can qualify for the Asian Cup. For a team that is now ranked 11th in Asia, failure to qualify for the 24-team continental championship would be a kick in the guts.