The Indian men’s national football team achieved its highest ranking since April 1996, when they were ranked 100. Riding on the back of two victories in the month of March, a 3-2 away win over Cambodia and a 1-0 win over Myanmar, the Blue Tigers rose to the 101st position.
This two-decade high, though, wasn’t through the sheer power of wins over high-profile opposition, in fact, it was the result of meticulous planning and more a case of ‘playing the ranking system’ than a team on a rapid rise.
To discredit the team’s good work completely would be tantamount to utter foolishness as well. The team has won 11 of it’s last 13 matches — , including an unofficial match against Bhutan and a 6-1 thumping of Laos in a 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifier. Their victory over Myanmar was also their first in that country since 1953, a gap of 64 years.
So how did they do it?
While re-stating that this wasn’t completely due to on-field results, there is a possibility that the All India Football Federation may have restricted the number of games that the team played to let the adverse effects of older matches on the rankings be neutralised first.
To understand all of this however, let us get back to how the FIFA rankings are calculated. A team’s ranking is decided by the weighted average number of match points it accrues over a period of four years.
Results in the previous 12 months are given a 100% weightage, with the 12 months prior to that allotted 50%. 30% and 20% are the weightages given to the yearly cycles prior to the periods mentioned before. So in the April 2017 ranking, the matches played in the March month of years 2016, 2015 and 2014 diminished in their contribution to the rankings whereas the results of March 2013 were not taken into account at all.
Interestingly, India’s results in March 2016 were a 4-0 loss to Iran and a 2-1 reversal at the hands of Turkmenistan. March 2015 saw a win and a draw against lowly ranked Nepal while Bangladesh drew 2-2 at Margao in March 2014. In 2013, India had won against Chinese Taipei and Guam before losing 1-0 at the hands of Myanmar.
It is safe to say that barring 2017, March really hasn’t been the kindest month to the Blue Tigers over the last few years.
Does that explain it completely?
Well, no, it doesn’t. Neither does the ranking fully justify India’s standing in the rankings table. Here’s why.
When India’s World Cup qualification campaign ended in March 2016, the team ended with the sixth worst record among the 40 Asian teams involved in the second round of the qualifiers. So did a seismic shift occur which propelled India from 35th best in Asia to 11th in the continent? No, of course not.
India finished bottom of its group, failing to beat Oman and Turkmenistan, two teams which defeated the team home and away but find themselves below it in the FIFA rankings. The important thing that the team have done is to not lose and not play between September 2016 and March 2017.
The likes of Iraq (119) and Thailand (129) which are among the best 12 teams in Asia vying for a World Cup spot are below India, more a failure of the ranking system. Apart from playing a second-string Puerto Rico in Mumbai last year, the last time India played a non-Asian opponent was way back in 2011, when they lost to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Zambia.
Match points are calculated as P (Points) = M (Match Result) X I (Importance) X T (Strength of opposition Team) X C (Confederation). Since M is three for a win, one for a draw and zero for a defeat (for penalty shootouts, winning team gets two and the losers get one) and I is 2.5 for a WC qualifier or confederation-level qualifier and 1 for a friendly, this puts India at an advantage over the likes of Iraq and Thailand.
While those two teams have been battling the best of Asia in a bid to qualify for Russia 2018 but struggling to notch up wins, India after getting knocked out of the qualifiers has a circuitous route to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, albeit against weaker opposition. The ‘I’ factor is however, the same for both and thus, a win over continental minnows counts for way more than a draw or a loss against heavyweights from the same confederation or even a loss in a World Cup game.
Benefits and true tests
The most obvious benefit is the seeding and draws related to future competitions. India, in the run-up to the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, landed an easy draw due to their enhanced rankings, and were pooled alongside Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau.
Should they successfully qualify for the final tournament to be held in UAE in 2019 and maintain their rankings till the draw is made, they will again be most likely be placed in Pot 2 as one of the top 12 teams in Asia.
Truer tests for India await this year however, with friendlies against Lebanon and Palestine sure to be more challenging than any that they have faced in the previous year. If the proposed inter-continental Champions Cup is held later this year and opponents who are highly ranked are invited, that could be another test of the team’s mettle.
For now, half the job, that is the part off the field has been executed and to general satisfaction, but it will be for nothing should the performances on field not match the team’s standing in the rankings. The best course of action would be to not rejoice overtly, but wait and watch the team’s on-field improvements, IF any.