It’s a frighteningly unfamiliar territory for Indian football. A couple of years ago, the national team had touched its worst-ever ranking of 173. Yet, it was a position they were familiar with and the federation as well as the players knew their way out.
However, the sudden surge in recent months has culminated with India reaching the cusp of top-100 of the world. The latest rankings released by FIFA on Thursday place India at 101 in the world, the country’s best position in more than two decades. The team ranks 11th in Asia, just below China and Qatar and above regional heavyweights like Iraq, North Korea, Oman and Jordan.
Now, most are unsure how to react or even what to make of it. Sunil Chhetri has been honest enough to point out that rankings are a ‘very fickle measurement’ of a team’s success. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has called on his teammates to prove in the coming months that this isn’t a fluke. Both, though, termed it as one of the biggest moments of their international careers. And rightly so.
Sandhu was just two years old when India were last ranked 101 in the world (April 1994). In February 1996, the national team achieved its highest ranking of 94 but it has been on a free-fall ever since, before it reached the nadir in March 2015, when the team was ranked 173rd out of 209 countries ranked by FIFA.
That was when Stephen Constantine had just taken over the national team reigns from the insipid Wim Koevermans. Constantine was last-minute, but an inspired, choice. The All India Football Federation’s then technical committee chairman Baichung Bhutia played an important role in convincing the English-Cypriot coach to return for a second stint.
Constantine was the coach of Rwanda back then and had guided the African nation to their best-ever world ranking of 68 in a short span. The brief handed to him upon landing in Delhi was to do something similar with India. But the team lacked courage, creativity, fitness and the skill to even beat the likes of Nepal and Guam.
During the entire World Cup qualifying campaign, India could win just one match. There were calls to part ways with Constantine, whose selection policies and style were criticised. “The motivation was down particularly after the Turkmenistan match (2-1 defeat away in World Cup qualifiers). But then we won the SAFF Cup, and that was the turning point,” Sandhu says over phone from Norway.
Including the SAFF Cup, India have played 13 international matches since March 2015. They have won 11 of them. During this phase, the complexion of the national team has changed. Constantine has handed international debuts to 32 players, bringing down the average age of the side by almost five years and dragging players out of their comfort zones.
Only Sandhu, strikers Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua, midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh and defenders Pritam Kotal and Sandesh Jhingan have looked assured of their places. “Since day one, coach has been saying if you don’t do the work, you’ll be replaced. He wants players who can get the job done, doesn’t matter who you are. If a player feels he is irreplaceable, then it’s not good. Right now, there is a lot of rivalry for spots in the team, which is a healthy sign,” Sandhu says.
Chhetri adds: “The desire is stronger with each passing game. There’s a nice little buzz about national team games and that’s heartening to see.”
As the results on field improved, backroom brains at the AIFF worked out the ranking math. They played around FIFA’s ranking system and by not playing a match for four months after the 4-2 win over Puerto Rico in a friendly last September. By not playing, India did not gain ranking points but they did not lose any either. That helped India gain a few places and the twin wins over Cambodia and Myanmar (where India won after 40 years) helped India become the second-best mover in the world this month.
But the real test for this bunch will begin now. India will play Lebanon (friendly) and Kyrgyzstan (Asian Cup qualifier) in June, which will provide ample proof whether the team actually belongs here. If the team wins both matches, they will move in the 90s. But even one defeat could see India back in 120s or 130s. In both scenarios, what happens in matches involving other teams will also matter.
Which is why the players are celebrating this milestone with caution. “Rankings, while important, are not a definite yardstick of how good or bad you are as a team,” Chhetri says. “There were so many days where I felt were a lot better than what our rankings suggested. The most important thing is the effort it will take to remain here. Should we stay around this mark over the next few years, then this would mean a lot more.”
Sandhu concurs. “We have brought ourselves to this level, now it is up to us to ensure we stay here and prove it isn’t a fluke. We need to ensure it isn’t a one-time thing.”