Throughout the footballing world, club rivalries were shelved last weekend and national colours fluttered in the stands on either side of it as players sweated it out for their countries on FIFA approved match-dates. Some fought for a spot in the 2018 World Cup, others tried to move up a bit on the FIFA ladder by winning international friendlies.
Oddly – or maybe not – India chose not to play a game, however. Last month, a comprehensive 4-1 victory against the 114th-ranked Puerto Rico had helped India move up four places to 148. So fans might have expected the team to play more games in a bid to improve their ranking further before the draw for the next round of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “For the Asian Cup qualification draw, we as of today, could be placed in pot 3. If we win against a team ranked under 130, our points could go as high as 214, which gives us a chance to be in pot 2,” Kushal Das, the general secretary of the governing body had remarked in an interview given before the Puerto Rico match.
How do the points work anyway?
The fact is that one solitary win doesn't propel a country very far. FIFA’s monthly ranking system takes into account all matches played in the past four years, assigning them weights on the basis of recency.
“A team’s total number of points over a four-year period is determined by adding: a) The average number of points gained from matches during the past 12 months and b) The average number of points gained from matches older than 12 months (depreciates yearly),” says the official website of the global body.
So, while the win at the Mumbai Football Arena last month accounted for a whopping 219 points in absolute terms, with the weightage thrown in, it contributed only five points to India’s cumulative tally, taking it to 205. Now, obviously, India could have lined up some friendlies with the hope of winning them and boosting the points further. For this, it had not just the October 3-11 window, but also another one between November 7 and 15.
However, AIFF has chosen to play it safe. And India is not playing any matches at all. After all, losing the friendlies would have meant a loss of points and a drop in the rankings, which would not have suited the team at all. The question then is: is the current points tally a safe one in the context of the draw for the Asian Cup qualifiers?
Maybe it's a calculated risk?
The buzz on the Indian football power circuit is that the AIFF didn’t want to irk the Indian Super League franchises and, more importantly, their patrons IMG-Reliance, by taking out a number of key players from the competition. However, the officials have refuted these assumptions and have offered a rationale for not playing.
India had lost two matches against Turkmenistan and Oman in October 2015, which meant zero points from the two fixtures. Now in the rankings to be published in October 2016, these two matches will drop in weightage and, according to point ‘a’ mentioned above, India’s average points gained from matches played in last year will shoot up.
This is how the FIFA ranking points depreciate over time: For the November 2016 ranking, games played between November 2015 and October 2016 carry 100% weightage, games played between November 2014 and October 2015 carry 50% weightage, and 30% and 20% are allotted, respectively, to the games played in the two 12-month cycles prior to November 2014.
The friendly against Singapore that India lost in October 2012 will no longer be taken into account in calculation. Believe it or not, these two factors alone can take India as high as 135th in the rankings, with the points tally climbing to 230. This without playing a single additional match.
Admittedly, in the December 2016 rankings, India will lose out some points since their win against Guam in November 2015 in Bengaluru will have a smaller contribution. Still, India will indeed move up a few places in the near future, although the exact rank will depend on the performances of the other teams that are close to India in the rankings and are playing friendlies in November, 2015.
Will this be enough for India to make it to Pot 2 before the Asian Cup draw? The dates for the draw have not been finalised, but the first matchday is scheduled to be March 28, 2017.
Here's how this can benefit India
A total of 24 Asian nations will qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The 12 countries whose participation is assured after the second round of the qualifiers are:
- Iran (FIFA Rank: 37)
- Australia (45)
- South Korea (47)
- Uzbekistan (49)
- Saudi Arabia (52)
- Japan (56)
- United Arab Emirates (66)
- China (78)
- Qatar (85)
- Syria (114)
- Iraq (128)
- Thailand (135)
Since UAE, the hosts, have competitively qualified, 12 spots still remain. These will be filled from the third round of Asian Cup qualifiers, in which 24 teams will be divided into six groups of four each to play home-and-away round robin matches, with two teams from each group qualifying.
The draw will involve four pots having six teams each. Among the competing teams, those teams with the six highest FIFA ranks will be placed in pot 1, the next six going into pot 2, and so on. And one team from each of the four pots will be in every group. So, if India can make it to pot 2, there will be only one higher-ranked team in its group, which may make qualifying a little easier.
Currently ranked 14th among the 21 that have qualified for the third round, India will feature in pot 3 if the draw were to be held today. The 14 teams are:
- Jordan (86)
- Kyrgyzstan (108)
- Oman (110)
- Turkmenistan (116)
- Palestine (118)
- North Korea (118)
- Philippines (125)
- Bahrain (126)
- Vietnam (141)
- Hong Kong (142)
- Lebanon (143)
- Tajikistan (144)
- Yemen (147)
- India (148)
In the rankings to be released on October 20, India is poised to overtake Hong Kong, Lebanon and Tajikistan and Thailand – the latter already having qualified for the Asian Cup. It will also remain ahead, as now, of Afghanistan, Singapore, Myanmar and Malaysia.
Taking the next rankings update into account, India will become the 11th ranked team of all nations in the third round and this will mean that India may face two lower-ranked teams in the qualifying competition, one each from pot 3 and pot 4, boosting its chances of finishing 2nd or higher in the group.
A new stance in Indian football?
This evidence of planning heralds a new era in Indian football, after FIFA dates were casually wasted over the past few years. The nadir of this nonchalant approach came in 2014, when India played only two international matches in the entire calendar year – drawing against Bangladesh and losing to Palestine.
Historically, India’s performances in friendly fixtures have been very poor, with the country struggling to beat even the South Asian Football Federation nations. Between January 2011 and the match against Puerto Rico, India played 16 matches on the FIFA dates and won only two – against Malaysia in 2011 and against Nepal in 2013. The away record is even more shambolic, with their last victory coming in Pakistan more than 11 years ago.
Even though the win against Puerto Rico contributed meagrely to the ranking, it could represent the light at the end a long dark tunnel. Stephen Constantine’s new-look India squad has already gelled well, and maybe it wouldn’t have been unfair to ask for a couple of wins.
But the fact remains that the AIFF has not read too much into the result of that one game and has taken the bold decision of not using the next two windows. In the recent past, countries like Greece and Romania have reaped the dividends of using FIFA match-days prudently. It's a risk, but a smart one.