Rankings don't tell the tale

Football: India have moved closer to the top-100 but they have some work to do before they can celebrate

Rankings don't tell the tale
On Thursday, Indian football fans were greeted with an interesting news. The latest FIFA rankings saw India reach 101 — locked in a four-way tie along with Estonia, Lithuania and Nicaragua. It is their best in two decades.

In the early days of the ranking system, introduced in 1992, the national team was a regular between 100 and 110. In 1996, the team broke into the top-100 (at 94).

The turn of the century saw India’s footballing fortunes follow a downward curve. Though there were a few notable performances, the highlight being qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, all of this hardly mattered as inconsistency plagued Indian football. Add mismanagement and shoddy administration to this, we had the perfect recipe for the sport’s downfall.

“That was the case when I started playing,” recalls one of India’s legends Bhaichung Bhutia. “We got results when it mattered, but then we weren’t consistent. And when you talk about rankings, it reflects the consistency of a team. And we lacked on that front.”

By the time Stephen Constantine took over as the head coach for the second time in 2015, India had hit rock bottom. The team was languishing at 173 (out of 209). An extended period of lull, when the team didn’t play at all, and a tough FIFA World Cup qualifiers that followed meant things weren’t going to change anytime soon.

“I can’t promise to change things overnight. It’s a process and will take time,” Constantine had said ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Oman in Bengaluru. Constantine was the coach of Rwanda before returning to India. He had guided the African nation to their best-ever ranking of 68 in a short span. The Englishman had a plan but wanted complete support to execute it. So when he finally saw the result, he was the first one to thank his ‘team’.

“It’s been a total team effort,” he said. “If the administrators had not allowed me to do the things in the manner I wanted it to be done, this wouldn’t have been possible,” he stressed.

But how much does the latest ranking reflect the quality of football India is playing of late? Yes, the team — under Constantine — has been performing much better than what it did under his predecessor Wim Koevermans. The results — 11 wins in 13 games since November 2015 — show that. But going by their recent outing against Myanmar in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, there’s nothing that gives an impression this team belongs to the higher echelons of Asian football, let alone the World stage.

The young Myanmar side had the Indians in check until the last minutes when a moment of brilliance by Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri helped them notch the much-needed win. “I don’t think the job is done yet,” goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu says. “We should take it (the ranking) as a positive but we should focus on what has to be done and that is qualify for the Asian Cup. While doing that, if our rankings are going up, then it’s a good thing.”

Skipper Chhetri makes a much more clean argument. “In my opinion, rankings are a very fickle measurement of one’s success and it is best to not get carried away by it,” he stresses.  “You lose one game, you slide down 40 places, you win one, and you climb up 50. The real achievement will be when we cling on to this position or better it over the next three to four years. We will need to play more games with better opponents and keep performing well consistently at home and more importantly, away.”

While Bhutia agrees that the ranking system doesn’t give a clear idea of the quality of football in the country, he states it’s an important tool to improve the standard of the game. “In India, we are obsessed with rankings. The players and the management might not be, but that’s the first thing anyone will ask when you talk about the Indian national team,” he states.

“But then if you see the chart, Oman (114), Bahrain (132), Thailand (129) and Iraq (119) are ranked below us. So does this mean India can easily beat these sides? I don’t think so. What this ranking does is that it gives us negotiating power when we have to invite teams to play friendlies against us. If we were 150-170 you can’t hope a Bahrain or an UAE to play a friendly with India. But now with the 101 rank, we can negotiate. And to improve the standard of the game, we have to play teams better than us.”

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