Why India must face only Asian nations for the next six years
While the news that India’s position moved up by 24 spots in the FIFA Rankings was a big lift for Indian football fans, the immediate concern was when their national team would be playing next. A quick glance of India’s fixture list on the official website of FIFA revealed that Wim Koevermans’ side were not scheduled to play until September.
Thus, once again frustration was vented at the AIFF on various social media platforms for not regularly organising international matches for the national team until news again broke that the Indian FA have lined up three friendlies in Europe in May-June.
The opponents for those three matches are yet to be confirmed but the rumour is that India are set to face Costa Rica on May 26 followed by matches with Scotland and Malta on June 7 and June 11 while the name of Luxembourg has also popped up as one of the possible opponents.
Costa Rica are one of the strongest teams from North America, Scotland are placed 66th in the world while Malta(147) and Luxembourg (151) are regular opponents of top European nations in European Championship or World Cup qualifiers.
So, the prospect of India facing such opposition will not only excite an average Indian football fan but even those who don’t regularly follow Indian football. But the truth is that India would have been better off facing Asian countries.
Having failed to qualify for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, the Indian national team has hit an all time low and thus, the summer was not the time to experiment against the opposition whom they are not going to face in order to qualify for future Challenge Cups, Asian Cups or even the World Cup.
Costa Rica and Scotland are a class apart when compared to India and could inflict heavy defeats and thus, further dampen the morale in the India squad. Malta and Luxembourg are considered to be among the weaker national teams of Europe and are currently placed lower than India in the FIFA rankings, but don’t take that statistic too seriously because last year India were thrashed 3-0 by an under-strength Azerbaijan outfit, who are considered to be one of the European minnows.
Much like the Caribbean Tour in August 2011 where the players endured a highly tiring trip and lost both matches and the 0-5 thrashing against a second-string Zambia side in November 2011, these possible friendlies in Europe are not going to help India in the long run and could instead lead to big defeats. Of course it remains to be seen whether those nations play India with their first choice teams or like Cameroon in the 2012 Nehru Cup, send their ‘B’ team.
Many optimists might argue that India need such exposure against superior opposition and how an upset result could give the national team a much-needed lift but all that could have been achieved against Asian nations also and would have served the team better in the future.
India are currently placed 22nd in Asia, which means there are 21 higher ranked nations from their own confederation that Koevermans’ side could have faced this summer.
Even if we leave out the 10 nations that will be appearing in the World Cup qualifiers and some other countries that have already finalised their summer fixtures, India still could have faced the likes of Afghanistan, Bahrain, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam to name a few.
It’s true that the event management companies, who are playing their part in organising these friendlies in Europe, would prefer some European teams for logistic reasons, and to sell the game better to the fans, are trying to rope in quality teams like Costa Rica and Scotland. But the AIFF could have just contacted some Asian teams directly and approached for a friendly home or away.
A friendly against Malaysia has been lined up in September and India needed to face similar opposition in the summer also. India haven’t beaten a West Asian nation away since 2004 and have also struggled to beat South-East Asian opposition in their own backyard. The failure to even qualify for a tournament that only comprises the emerging nations of Asia proves that India have gone backwards since their appearance in the 2011 Asian Cup and at such a time, all India needed was some matches against Asian countries to try and move up the continental ladder.
Bahrain is an excellent example for India to follow as they didn’t even qualify for the 2000 Asian Cup but kept their focus on improving in the continent by regularly facing Asian opposition and finished fourth in the 2004 edition. The West Asian nation also narrowly missed out from qualification for the 2006 and 2010 Worlds Cups and in that period also, they rarely faced countries from another confederation. Bahrain’s story reveals that missing out on one Asian Cup isn’t the end of the world but the key is to learn and not make the same mistakes.
The AIFF have to realise that regular international matches against Asian opposition is the way forward for the national team. To qualify for future Asian Cup editions and even the World Cup, they won’t have to beat Scotland or Costa Rica but almost certainly would have to defeat nations like Afghanistan, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
With 2015 Australia out of the equation, the 2019 edition will be India’s next target to be in the Asian Cup and so for another six years at least, the AIFF should resist the glamour and profit of facing countries from other continents. India should just focus on beating Asian teams and improve their position in the continent.