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How AIFF missed a chance to boost India’s FIFA ranking 8 years ago

FEATURED WRITER
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10.67K   //    01 Jun 2017, 16:36 IST
Sunil Chhetri's India are ranked 100th in the current FIFA rankings

India’s surge up to 100 in the FIFA rankings ladder has been greeted with elation in the world’s second-most populous country. The Blue Tigers were as low as 173rd in March 2015 and now find themselves 73 places ahead. That is a considerable leap given the position they were in two years ago.

However, on-pitch performances haven’t entirely contributed to India’s dramatic rise in the FIFA rankings. Meticulous number crunching in the headquarters of Indian football’s governing body, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), has also played a key role in India’s ascent up the leaderboard.

That being said, could the AIFF and India have done better? 

The answer is, apparently, yes.

Eduard Ranghiuc is a Romanian computer engineer and stats expert who specialises in predicting FIFA rankings. He helped the Romanian national team achieve a FIFA ranking of eighth ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw that ensured Tricolorii avoided the likes of Germany, Spain and the Netherlands.

Romania eventually were clubbed with Poland, Montenegro, Denmark, Armenia and Kazakhstan — a far less demanding set of teams — for the European qualifiers where only the group winners are guaranteed to make the World Cup finals.

India have also trodden a similar path of late, albeit on a less global scale. The Blue Tigers hadn’t qualified for the Asian Football Confederation’s Asian Cup — Asia’s flagship quadrennial tournament — since 2011. That appearance in 2011 was India’s only third ever in an Asian Cup, a competition that has been staged every four years since 1956.

Therefore, to make things easier, the AIFF went about doing the math off the pitch that has now seen India climb to 100 in the FIFA rankings, thereby making them the 11th best team in Asia. 

AIFF’s number play isn’t a brand new phenomenon, though. The governing body of Indian football ensured that the Blue Tigers achieve a FIFA ranking high enough to be seeded in Pot 2 for the 2019 Asian Cup third round qualifying draw which was held in January 2017.

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Had the draw been held in September 2016 when India’s FIFA rank was 148th, the Blue Tigers would’ve been placed in Pot 3, making their qualification campaign tougher. 

India were subsequently drawn in a group with the Kyrgyz Republic, Myanmar and Macau, a relatively easier set of teams considering all of them sit below the Blue Tigers in the current FIFA rankings.

However, what the AIFF has gone about doing in the recent past could’ve been done years ago, according to Ranghiuc. That can be loosely interpreted as India missing out on getting a headstart over the rest of Asia as well as the world when they ignored the services of the Romanian eight years ago.

Yes, I did offer my services to the AIFF in 2009. But I got no reply from the Indian federation,” Ranghiuc said in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda.

In recent times, the likes of Romania and Wales have taken advantage of the loopholes in FIFA’s ranking system to gain ground as regards qualifying for a major international tournament.

Like Romania, Wales also avoided the big hitters in their qualification group for the 2018 World Cup by being ranked tenth at the time of the draw in mid-2015. Chris Coleman’s Dragons bolstered their FIFA ranking by avoiding friendly matches in the 12 months leading up to the draw, an approach that India seem to have taken of late, and one that, according to Ranghiuc, is the best to attain short term targets.

The Romania/Wales approach is best used when targeting a peak for a short time like, before a draw, to improve your chances of advancing. 

But, friendlies are important for team cohesion,” he added.

FIFA rankings are released every month

India only played a single friendly from September 2016 to March 2017 — a 4–1 win over higher-ranked Puerto Rico — and that saw the Blue Tigers jump from 152 in August to 132 in March. Further, wins in March against Cambodia and Myanmar meant that Stephen Constantine’s charges have now reached a 21-year high of 100 in the FIFA rankings, something that speaks volumes of the work that has been done, both on and off the pitch.

India’s jump from 173rd to 100th in two years is commendable, but it is more difficult to break into the elite top 50 with mere mathematics. Performances on the pitch take precedence, and winning competitive matches becomes a priority.

The most important part is winning competitive matches (World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers). The greatest amount of points for a friendly win for India is 555 vs. Brazil. But India can get 580.125 points for defeating Jordan in an Asian Cup qualifier,” explained Ranghiuc.

What the AIFF has set about doing in terms of boosting India’s rankings is noteworthy, but dreams of a top 50 place for the Blue Tigers remain distant.

India hardly boasts of world-class football infrastructure, and Ranghiuc also suggests that focussing on a bottom-up approach rather than relying on cosmetic rankings will stand the country’s national team in good stead.

First, India needs to build proper infrastructure. The ranking is just a number. For India, reaching the top 50 is a bit of a stretch. Australia (50th) have twice the number of points India currently have,” he added.

Until now, it has been a smooth ride for the Blue Tigers. They jumped to 100th in May and maintained that standing in June without playing a single match leading up to those months. Results elsewhere have played a big part in India’s rise, so has their lack of friendly matches.

But, the way FIFA rankings are calculated makes it difficult for India to play glamour friendlies against more accomplished opponents. Furthermore, the gulf in quality between elite opponents and India suggests that the Blue Tigers will gain very little from one-sided affairs.

As Ranghiuc explains, “India are not a household name in football. Top teams will use their friendlies to test themselves against top opposition or to gain from gate receipts. Currently, India are not of much help for these targets,” India are far from ideal opponents for top teams, who stand to lose more than gain from playing a friendly against India. 

For example, in 2013, Netherlands beat Indonesia — a team outside FIFA top 150 — in a friendly but that result adversely affected the Oranje’s ranking to the point that they didn’t make the top seeds for the 2014 World Cup finals draw. 

To add to that, there are also expenses involved in arranging friendly matches which will amount to a bad investment on the AIFF’s part if India cannot compete with their opponents on the pitch.

Of course, India could pay top teams to play against them, but could AIFF afford it? Besides, what would be the purpose? 

One step at a time should be the course of action. What could you learn from being hammered by Iran?” said Ranghiuc.

The exploitation of the flaws — like goal difference and home advantage not being taken into account — in FIFA rankings’ calculator has already seen Romania and Wales earn favourable draws despite them not playing on a regular basis and not possessing elite level stars in their ranks, Gareth Bale apart. 

It is a stretch to expect India to scale similar heights in the immediate future, but the AIFF is at least making the right moves now, eight years after it had spurned the chance to use Ranghiuc’s expertise.

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