In February 1996, on the strength of wins against Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh in Madras a couple of months earlier, India briefly occupied her highest ever position in the FIFA rankings. Having broken into the top 100 at 94, after first reaching the landmark in October 1993, it would seem that the game in India had been provided with the fillip required to propel it forward.
The first semi-professional league in the guise of the National Football League (NFL) debuted the same year. However, while the NFL did set the stage for a more polished product in the I-League, which began in November 2007, it passed on the baton with the national team languishing at 145 in the rankings. By the time the first season of the latest national league avatar in the Indian Super league (ISL) was over, India attained its worst ever ranking of 173 in March 2015. It seemed like every new initiative to grow the game in the country had an inversely proportional effect on the fortunes of its national team.
The World Cup qualifiers in 2015 confirmed for many that progress would be slow. While we were expected to lose to the likes of Iran, Uzbekistan and Oman, a reverse against lowly Guam, with a population less than 200,000 and then ranked 174 in the world to India’s 141, was a bitter pill to swallow. India duly finished last in the qualifying group.
Since 2015, however, there has been a steady improvement in the rankings through a combination of improved performances on the field and a carefully curated schedule designed to artificially maintain a ranking.
As always, the South Asian Football Federation Cup, held every two years, came to our rescue. Victories against Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Afghanistan in the final, coupled with a two legged victory over Laos in an Asian Cup qualifier, helped prop up our ranking. A win against higher ranked Puerto Rico, who had landed in Mumbai only the previous day, in September 2016 also provided a big boost. India began 2017 at 129 in the rankings.
The higher ranking ensured that India was seeded when the draw was made for the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers. This provided us with an easier group to navigate and we qualified directly to the tournament for the first time since 1984.
India continued with its strategy of playing lower ranked opponents in 2017 (Puerto Rico was an anomaly) and this has ensured that its ranking has slowly but steadily risen. It reached 100 again in May, for the first time in 21 years, and eventually settled at 105 by the end of the year. A friendly against Palestine, then ranked 91, was cancelled in October to ensure that India got a good draw for the Asian Cup in 2019. The draw will be held in April and Indian football officials will try and ensure that the status quo does not change.
This situation is not unique to India. Switzerland were seeded for the 2014 World Cup draw largely because they only played three friendlies in the previous year. Romania took advice from a consultant and played only one friendly in the year preceding the draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers to ensure that they were seeded in Pot 1.
It is not a secret in world football circles that the rankings are flawed. As recently as 2009, Bahrain was one playoff victory away from appearing in the 2010 World Cup. They are currently below India in the rankings as were the likes of Iraq, Lebanon and Oman until very recently. The rankings suggest that India are the 15th best team in Asia. In July, we were 12th. For a team that has never come close to progressing from the second round of Asian World Cup qualifiers and whose appearances in the Asian Cup have been rare, that is almost laughable.
As Indian captain, Sunil Chhetri himself has said, the rankings are a very fickle measure of success for the national team. Yes, there are short term benefits like being pooled with the less stronger teams in continental competitions, but in the long term, it is to India’s advantage to play the best teams in Asia.
Take Afghanistan’s example. After losing to India in the SAFF Cup final in January 2016, they decided to switch from SAFF to the newly formed Central Asian Football Association (CAFA). Along with political benefits within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), it suits them in their development to play far stronger teams like Iran and Uzbekistan than mix it with the likes of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Make no mistake about it. The Blue Tigers are a team on the rise. They remained unbeaten in 2017 and are on a record 13 match unbeaten run. The qualification for the Asian Cup in 2019 is not to be sniffed at, regardless of the quality of opposition. A true measure of progress however would be good performances in that tournament. India has only one draw and six losses to show for its efforts since 1964.
In addition to this, India has to play stronger opposition from around the world and reduce its matches against the SAFF countries. We may slide down the rankings, but will be better off from it. The current ranking of 105 is a red herring and should be treated as such.